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CHICAGO (Reuters) - U.S. consumers are still cautious about eating at restaurants and are not planning to loosen the purse strings for holiday spending this year despite signs the economy is improving, a new survey shows.
More than 52 percent of consumers surveyed said they are eating out less frequently today than three months ago, according to questions asked for Reuters as part of a larger survey by America's Research Group.
Also in the survey, 45.7 percent of consumers said they planned to spend less on holiday shopping this season, while 42.3 percent said they will spend the same as in 2008, which was the toughest holiday season in nearly four decades for retailers.
Retailers and restaurant owners have been hard hit by the worst recession since the Great Depression, with people spending on only the basics in stores while eating more meals at home to save money.
Some evidence is emerging that the economy is improving, including a rise in the consumer confidence index from the Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers and a big drawdown in wholesale inventories, both reported on Friday
But signs of improvement were not evident in consumers' spending plans, said Britt Beemer, founder of America's Research Group.
"Everybody wants the recession to be over, but nobody has told the consumer," Beemer said.
He noted that in past surveys, when consumers said they would spend less, 70 percent were not able to say how much less they would spend. In his most recent survey, 88 percent were able to say how much less they would spend, a sign they had thought through the cutbacks.
He also noted that the recent government "cash for clunkers," program, which helped fuel auto sales, siphoned spending from other retail sectors.
"All the dollars that we saw in cash for clunkers, those were all dollars taken out of other retail categories," Beemer said.
When consumers do eat out, they are still choosing lower-priced options. A third of consumers said they spent $8 to $10 per person, while 26.9 percent said they spent $11 to $15 per person and 16.8 percent said they would spend $5 to $7.
On the retail side, one strategy that appears to have worked well was a push by retailers to sell denim this fall.
In the survey, 45.2 percent said they had purchased denim jeans in the last few months and 13.4 percent said they planned to buy denim in the next few months.
The spending range had 32.9 percent of people in the $25 to $34 range and 22.7 percent in the $35-$49 range.
The survey was conducted Sept. 7-10, included 1,000 interviews and has an error factor of plus or minus 3.8 percent.
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