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Self-Serve: The Bane of Budgets and Diets

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Do-it-yourself can be a money saver when you’re talking about making minor home repairs or planning a wedding. But when it comes to frozen yogurt, it may be better for your wallet and your waistline to go for counter service.

Self-serve yogurt has become a trendy franchise option, reports Monday’s Wall Street Journal. With more than 17 chains offering self-serve and a number of independent stores, the selection is staggering enough that Eater.com’s Portland, Ore., site dubbed the trend “Fro-yopocalypse.” But with self-service options also popping up for candy, cereal and beer, among other foods, what caught our attention is the cost. Notes the WSJ, “With weight-based pricing, the average self-serve ticket is $6.32, compared with $5.61 at a traditional store, says a TCBY spokeswoman.” (Mrs. Fields Famous Brands, parent company of TCBY, did not respond to Pay Dirt’s requests for comment.)

Nutrition experts say that sticker shock isn’t surprising. “Like all-you-can-eat buffets, there’s a drive to get your money’s worth,” says food psychologist Jim Painter, a professor at Eastern Illinois University and producer of the documentary “Portion Size Me.” Studies have repeatedly shown that consumers tend to fill whatever plate or bowl they’re given, and self-serve customers have a limited choice of containers — which for frozen yogurt are often much larger than the 4-ounce serving size chains use as their nutritional benchmark. At self-serve chain Yogurtini, for example, consumers can choose a 16-ounce or 32-ounce container. The average customer’s creation clocks in at 14 ounces which, at $0.39 per ounce, costs $5.46, says Natasha Nelson co-founder and president of the chain. Nutrition information is posted in the store, and customers are free to weigh their food as often as they’d like before purchase — although almost no one does, she says.

Extensive choices — stores typically offer more than a dozen yogurt flavors and several dozen toppings — further entice consumers to load up, says nutritionist Lisa Young, author of “The Portion Teller.” “You feel like you can try a little bit of everything,” she says. That adds to your bill and ups the calorie intake. Although frozen yogurt can be healthier than ice cream, some versions are high in sugar. Plus, eating double or triple the typical serving size isn’t likely to be “healthier” by any stretch.

Consumers’ best defense is to get counter service when available. If self-serve is your only option, exercise restraint. “You don’t need to have some of everything,” Young says. She suggests asking if smaller container sizes are available, and taking advantage of the opportunity to weigh as you go. But be prepared for a bigger bill, anyway. Painter and Young both said they have tried to walk away from self-serve stores with small, cheap portions — and failed. On one recent yogurt shop visit, Painter’s dessert weighed nearly a pound: “I got done and my wife says, ‘What did you do?’”

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  • Pay Dirt examines the millions of consumer decisions Americans make every day: What to buy, how much to pay, whether to rave or complain. Lead written by Quentin Fottrell, the blog examines these interactions, providing readers with news, insight and tips on shopping, spending, customer service, and companies that do right – and wrong – by their customers. Send items, questions and comments to quentin.fottrell@dowjones.com or tweet @SMPayDirt.

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