Is bargain hunting worth your time?

Advocates are always telling consumers to shop around to find the best deals. And thanks to the ease of shopping on the Internet, an increasing number of people are willing to do just that.

The typical consumer spends about an hour comparison-shopping for big-ticket items, such as airfare, hotel rooms, auto insurance and laptop computers, for instance, according to a new survey sponsored by Insurance.com. Consumers spend a bit less time, but more than 30 minutes on average, shopping for groceries, clothing, prescription drugs and kid's toys.

Is it worth it? According to the survey, that depends on what you're shopping for. Those who price compare for gasoline can definitely find bargains by buying at big-box stores, such as Costco, or by using gas-shopping apps that direct them to the lowest-priced stations.

Unfortunately, the savings may not be worth investing the time. It takes the average consumer about 5.3 hours per year to drive to the lower-cost stations and wait in line to net a $119 annual savings, according to the survey of some 2,000 drivers.

Shopping for a new car, on the other hand, is likely to save more than $1,000. It takes longer (about 13 hours annually, on average), but the return adds up to more than $77 per hour. That's not a bad hourly rate, and handily beats the hourly return on shopping for gas ($22).

The same holds true for shopping for cable television, cell-phone plans and auto insurance. Consumers willing to shop around for these products saved $248 annually on cable; $179 on cell phones and $540 on auto insurance, according to the survey. All those activities generated a return that added to more than $100 per hour spent shopping.

Not surprisingly, consumers are less likely to shop for products that aren't easily compared online. Fifty-four percent of consumers said the hassle of visiting multiple stores or multiple websites was a factor on occasions when they chose not to comparison-shop.

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