One of the largest retail exchange traded funds (ETFs) is at highs not seen in nearly three years, and some of the others aren’t far off from hitting their own new highs. But the new highs don’t entirely gibe with the still-tenuous consumer picture. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Across the board, the retail picture is looking much sunnier after a gloomy 2009 for the sector. All the way from the docks to the car dealerships to the retail showroom, retail numbers are moving in an upward direction. Peter S. Goodman for The New York Times reports that production is expanding on the factory floor, and retail items such as furniture and electronics are being snapped up more rapidly.

Perhaps that accounts for the vastly improved performance of some of the industry’s largest retail ETFs.

SPDR S&P Retail (NYSEArca: XRT) is up to its highest point in nearly three years; other funds like Consumer Staples Select Sector SPDR (NYSEArca: XLP) and Vanguard Consumer Staples ETF (NYSEArca: VDC) aren’t far off from a new high. Part of the consumer staple ETFs’ success is easily explained: staples are the “necessary” items that few of us can live without. This includes toothpaste, household cleaners, toilet paper and basic food items. [How to Play a Retail Rebound.]

Yet, retail spending is still fairly weak. Jason Simpkins for NuWire Investor reports that consumers say their personal finance position is deteriorating rather than improving at a ratio of 2-to-1, according to the preliminary Reuters/University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index for April.