(REUTERS) -- Stocks bounced back from a string of declines on Friday, on track to close their strongest quarter in more than two years on a positive note.

Despite falling six out of the last nine sessions, the S&P 500 remains up 12.1 percent for the first quarter. It could be the best start to the year since 1998 and the index's best quarter since the third quarter of 2009.

Apple shares ranked among the day's losers and curbed gains of both the Nasdaq and the S&P 500. Still, the iPhone maker's stock is up almost 50 percent this quarter - its best such period in seven years.

Investors flocked to consumer-oriented shares after data showed U.S. consumer spending rose by the most in seven months in February, even as personal income increased only modestly.

The S&P consumer staples sector index rose 0.7 percent and the S&P consumer discretionary sector index added 0.4 percent.

The S&P technology sector index, up 21 percent this quarter, was the only one among the S&P's top 10 sectors to trade lower for the day. The index was off 0.1 percent.

You're seeing a bit of sector rotation, said Quincy Krosby, market strategist at Prudential Financial in Newark, regarding the day's outperformance by consumer and healthcare stocks.

That underscores investors are still constructive on the equity market.

The S&P health-care sector index was up 0.8 percent.

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 66.90 points, or 0.51 percent, to 13,212.72. The S&P 500 Index gained 6.32 points, or 0.45 percent, to 1,409.60. The Nasdaq Composite edged up 3.70 points, or 0.12 percent, to 3,099.06.

At midday, Apple was down 1.4 percent at $601.25.

Following a stellar first quarter, U.S. stock investors will focus next week on the March nonfarm payrolls report and then their attention will turn to earnings season two weeks later.

Analysts said investors will take note of guidance as they assess the toll that Europe's near-recessionary conditions and China's slowdown will take on U.S. corporate earnings. Companies' expectations of the effect that rising oil prices will have on consumers will also be of interest.

The pace of business activity in the U.S. Midwest slowed more than expected in March as employment and new orders dropped from elevated levels last month, according to the Chicago PMI report from the Institute for Supply Management-Chicago.

In a more upbeat report, U.S. consumer sentiment rebounded to its highest level in more than a year in March as optimism about jobs and income overcame higher prices at the gasoline pump. The final reading for the March consumer sentiment index was 76.2, according to the Thomson Rueters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers.

After several weeks of better-than-forecast data, economic indicators have shown recent signs of slackening. The trend echoes last year's market peak in the first half of the year.

The U.S.-listed shares of Research in Motion Ltd., the Canadian company that makes the BlackBerry smartphones, jumped 4.8 percent to $14.39 a day after it reported its first quarterly loss since 2005. The company said it will no longer issue forecasts, prompting several analysts to cut their price targets on the stock. The stock's rebound on Friday followed its tumble in after-hours trading on Thursday, in the wake of quarterly results released after the closing bell.

(Editing by Jan Paschal)