Cautious consumers are increasingly reserving eating out for special occasions but are spending more when they do visit restaurants.
Those are the main findings from new survey conducted by food service research firm Horizons.
Horizons said its QuickBite survey showed that 33% now cited a special occasion as their reason for eating out in the previous two weeks including Christmas, up from 23% in July 2011.
It said the results showed that the trend demonstrated increasing caution on the behalf of consumers as economic uncertainty persisted.
Convenience (30%), meeting friends (30%) and not wanting to cook (22%) were the other key reasons for deciding to eat out, according to the YouGov study of 2,034 respondents conducted earlier this month.
The survey, which quizzed people on their eating out habits over a two-week period at the end of 2011, showed a decline in the frequency consumers ate out - down to 2.1 occasions in December 2011 from 3.3 times last year.
Over a quarter (27%) said they had not eaten out at all in the previous two weeks, with cost being the most commonly cited reason.
But people appeared to be spending more when they did go out, up from £10.29 a year ago to £13.80.
"We have noted the tendency of consumers to eat out less, but spend more, for some time and this appears to be an ongoing trend. It also seems consumers now need a good reason to eat out - such as a special occasion - and are less inclined to eat out as a matter of course or on impulse," said Emma Read, director of marketing and business development at Horizons.
"Heavy snowfall last year makes it a bad year to compare with, but even so the frequency of eating out shows a significant decline, something we don't expect to change throughout 2012. It is also clear from this research that cost is the key reason behind this fall."
By Neil Gerrard
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