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By Paul Carton

ChangeWave's latest December Consumer Spending Report shows an uptick in U.S. consumer spending, as well as improving conditions for Restaurants.

In a separate survey we took a close-up look at consumer dining habits, including which restaurant chains consumers say they’ll be visiting more and less often over the next 90 days.

Further Improvement in December

For the fourth consecutive survey, we’re seeing an improvement in Restaurant spending. One-in-seven respondents (14%) now say they’ll spend more money at restaurants going forward – unchanged from November. However, just 30% say they'll be spending less money at restaurants – a 2-pt improvement.

Other positive signs include:

• Over the past 90 days, 24% of respondents say they've spent More than planned on eating out compared to just 20% who say Less than planned.

• The percentage who say they’ve been Eating More Meals at Restaurants (5%) has risen 1-pt. And while one-in-three (33%) still say they’ve been Eating More Meals at Home over the past 90 days, that’s 2-pts better than previously.

Looking Ahead – Next 90 Days. Better than one-in-five (21%) say they expect to dine out More Frequently over the next 90 days, up 9 pts, while 20% say they’ll dine out Less Frequently, down 6 pts. All told, that’s a 15-pt improvement over our previous survey.

In addition, 6% of respondents now say they’ll dine at more expensive restaurants going forward – 1-pt higher than in our August 2009 survey, while only 16% say they’ll dine at less expensive restaurants, a 3-pt decline.

Restaurant Categories

We asked respondents to tell us which types of restaurants they'll be eating at more or less often over the next 90 days – and the categories showing the biggest improvement since August are Upscale/Fine Dining Restaurants (Change in Net Difference Score = +10) and High End Casual Restaurants (+9).

Moderate Casual Dining Restaurants (unchanged) and Fast Food Restaurants showed little to no improvement.

Individual Restaurant Chains. We also asked respondents which restaurant chains they would be spending more vs. less money at over the next 90 days – and compared the results with the findings from our previous survey. Here are the 3 best-positioned and worst-positioned restaurant chains:

The top 3 chains broken out by dining category are:

• High End Casual Dining Restaurants: P.F. Chang's (NASDAQ:PFCB) +4; Bonefish Grill (+3)

• Quick Casual Restaurants: Panera Bread (NASDAQ:PNRA) +2

And here are the bottom 3 chains broken out by dining category:

• Moderate Casual Dining Restaurants: Applebee's (NYSE:DIN) -2

• Fast Food Restaurants: McDonald's (MCD; -5); Dairy Queen (-3)

Coffee Buying – Starbucks' Momentum Continues

Nearly a third of respondents (30%) report they typically buy fresh brewed coffee from a coffee shop or restaurant. We took a close-up look at this group to find out where they'll be buying their coffee over the next 90 days.

For the fourth consecutive survey, Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) has experienced a 4-pt improvement in consumer coffee buying and is continuing to show momentum.

Moreover, Starbucks (+5) is the 'Brew at Home' coffee brand that shows the most momentum among coffee drinkers. Green Mountain (+4) has also experienced a major increase in demand among coffee drinkers.

Mike Wrobel co-wrote this article.

Disclosure: No Positions

Source: Good News for Restaurants: Consumer Dining Spending on an Upswing