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The 5Ws of e-Commerce market research

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Why read this? : We go through a 5Ws on e-Commerce market research. Learn the key types of questions to ask when researching online shopping. Read this to learn how to structure your thinking and story on e-Commerce market research. 

The 5Ws model is a tool to break down big topics by asking 5 questions. Who, what, where, when and why. Answering these helps you organise your thoughts into a clear story. (See our 5Ws of idea generation article for an example of this).

E-Commerce market research is a good topic for a 5Ws. Many market researchers don’t know e-Commerce well, and many e-Commerce people aren’t used to market research. So, read on to see how a 5Ws can bring these topics together.

The importance of e-Commerce market research

Market research is important. It’s how you find deep insights about your customers, and what they need. Your whole marketing mix is based on how you meet these needs. 

E-Commerce is an interesting category for market research. There are many data sources, such as your digital media and website. And obviously, there is data from customer orders and your CRM program.

This data shows you customer reactions to your activities. You learn what works, and what doesn’t. 

Person holding glasses in front of them against a blurry street background

This data helps you make better decisions about customers, which helps drive your e-Commerce growth. But to make those decisions, you still need a clear market research story from the data. That starts with working out who your customers are. 


Who is a great place to start the 5Ws on e-Commerce market research.

You use research to understand who your ideal customer is. Your goal is to build a profile of your target audience.

This usually means segmentation research. You use research to divide the total market into smaller groups, that share similar buying characteristics.

You identify customers in each segment based on these similarities.

Woman holding credit card near a macbook and typing in her details

Demographic-based segments

The easiest way to segment is with demographic data. Common examples include age, gender, income or location. These hard facts about customers make them easy to identify. However, how much influence these have on purchase decisions varies by category

In some categories, demographics are a major factor. For example, skincare has very different products for men and women. Educational books are mainly aimed at younger people. Health insurance focuses on older people. Demographics are also useful in media buying. You buy media based on the age, gender, location etc. of the audience.

But demographics are rarely enough on their own. They only give you a broad view of the customer. They don’t explain where and when they do things, and what drives their decisions. They don’t go deep enough. You need different e-Commerce market research answers to find those out. 

That usually means looking at occasions and / or psychographic variables in your segmentation research. We’ll come back to those shortly. 


Once you know who your target audience is, next you aim to understand what they do. This is about asking questions and gathering data to track and understand their behaviour.

There are many different data sources for this. Different sources help you understand different parts of the customer’s journey.

For example, customers act differently when researching the category versus when considering a purchase. And they also do different things after making a purchase. 

laptop google search

What customers do to research the category

The first step in most e-Commerce journeys starts when the customer searches for what they need. They research products and categories online. 

You can look at secondary data sources like Google Trends and Google Ads to help you understand this search behaviour. This helps you with both SEO and keyword research

Knowing what your customers look for online can help you define your competitive advantage. You use this knowledge to create more relevant online content and offers. It helps you identify what they need

What customers do when considering a purchase

You can also use the data from your Direct-to-Consumer D2C store website (if you have one) to research what customers do when considering a purchase. This helps you work out how to improve your overall D2C experience. You learn what works and what doesn’t.

For example, you can determine what content works best on your product pages. You can test different layouts, images and copy. You can understand how different price discounts and sales promotions affect sales. And you can ask customers for direct feedback on improving the experience

These are all types of market research, even though they don’t fall under classic research definitions like qualitative and quantitative. Analysing data about what customers do helps you understand them better. 

What customers do after a purchase

Then you’ve got your data about customers who buy. At a minimum, you’ve got their contact details and their purchase history. You can also track your other interactions with them if you have a loyalty program. Your CRM systems help you create more personalised and relevant experiences. 

One of the big advantages of D2C is this direct customer interaction. Unlike classic market research approaches, there’s no sampling bias here. You use your data to listen to what each customer needs. And then you improve the experience to meet that need. Better experiences leads to more sales. 


What customers do is closely linked to where they do it. And market research can help you understand the places customers visit when they shop online, and what they do there. 

For example, you can use market research to identify where they look for information on products.

This type of “where” research can identify influencers, key category websites and social media channels. You use these insights in your digital media and PR activity. 

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How much you can find out about where they shop depends on the channels you sell through. Marketplaces and print on demand won’t offer much data. Online retailers will have data but will make you pay extra for it. Your best option in terms of quality of data is when you run your own D2C store.

Occasion-based segments

Going back to the segmentation research we mentioned earlier, this type of “where” insight usually links to occasion-based segmentation variables. For example, the type of online store they visit. Some customers may focus on price, for example. They always go for discount-driven stores. Others might focus on quality. They always go for stores with high levels of customer service.

You usually have to do qualitative or quantitative research to gather this type of data. Unless you have a D2C store, you won’t have access to data about where shoppers buy online. 

In this research, you can ask all sorts of extra questions about their shopping experience. You can even watch them make a purchase and ask them to describe what they’re thinking. For example, which pages do they look at? What types of information do they value? Why do they choose one retailer over another? How do they decide what to buy on each site? 

You answer these questions to better understand what the customer looks for when they shop online. This helps with your e-Commerce planning, and crafting your competitive strategy. You need to find a better positioning than what’s currently on offer to win over that customer. 


Occasions also cover when customers go online. Though e-Commerce stores are “open” 24/7, 365 days a year, they’ll have peaks and troughs in activity and sales.

You can use both market research and / or sales data (if you have it) to understand the timing of people’s e-Commerce behaviour. 

For regular purchases (e.g. groceries) the “when” usually relates to the time of day or day of the week.

Close-up of a clock face showing dial sitting between ten and twelve

For example, most jobs are 9 to 5. So, you see more online shopping in the evening or at weekends when these people aren’t at work. Knowing this, you time your media plans and sales promotions to catch people when they’re most likely to be online shopping. 

For more irregular purchases (e.g. fashion), the “when” usually relates more to the time of year. Take seasonal weather conditions, for example. Online fashion stores push warm clothes for winter and beach clothes in the summer. Or it might be based on special occasions and events. There are lots of specific offers around key selling periods like Easter, Halloween, Black Friday and Christmas

Again, it’s market research and data which help you understand when e-Commerce customers are most likely to be active. 


The final 5W question is why. You should understand why customers do what they do. This gives you the deepest insight, but it’s often the hardest to uncover. 

In terms of e-Commerce market research, understanding why is normally done with qualitative research.

This is usually face-to-face with customers, especially in focus groups to probe deeper into attitudes and motivations. Segmentation research refers to these as psychographic variables. 

Neon sign with a question mark inside a square at the end of a dark corridor

You can get ideas on what might be driving your customer’s why by looking at secondary research. Often, it’s broad ideas about the benefits online shoppers want like ease and convenience, range or price. You can also find ideas in related areas like behavioural science and design psychology

But you need to test these ideas. And that means talking to customers to get the true picture. You use a research agency to find the right customer types and pull out the right types of insights

This isn’t quick or easy. But it pays off when you get it right. Once you find a clear “why” insight, it drives your competitive strategy and brand positioning. Understanding the why helps you find the deeper needs customers have. You build your benefit from that need. And from that, you execute it clearly and compellingly. This insight-to-action process drives your e-Commerce growth

Structuring an e-Commerce market research story

One of the main reasons we like the 5Ws model is the structure it gives your thinking.

Rather than be overwhelmed by a big topic, you break it into more manageable chunks. 

And clearly, e-Commerce market research is a big topic. It covers lots of different areas.

Going through the 5Ws helps you break it down. It gives you the main elements you need to create a clearer story.

Book open on someone's lap as they read a story, lit by sparkling lights

As per our storytelling in market research article, story is important in market research. It helps you explain what you’ve found out, and what you need to do about it. You can use the 5Ws to help you build your e-Commerce market research story structure.

In storytelling terms, who gives you the “Hero” of your story. That’s the customer. What gives you the “Hero’s Problem” and the “Inciting incident”. It’s what’s troubling them. Or what they have to change which drives their behaviour to shop online. 

Where and when help you create the “world” where your story takes place. It’s the context of where the shopper goes and when they go. This helps you visualise their “drama”. It helps you create the call to action which guides customers towards your solution to their problem. 

And lastly why. This helps you create the overall theme of your story. The benefit your e-Commerce offer gives the (hero) customer. It’s how you’ll help solve their problem. And solving customer problems is what drives e-Commerce growth.

Conclusion - The 5Ws of E-Commerce Market Research

The 5Ws model is a great way to work out what you need from e-Commerce market research.

It tells you who your target audience is. What they need. It shows you where and when they buy, so you know the best places and times to connect with them. And most importantly, it shows you why they buy. Knowing why helps you create the right e-Commerce experience to meet their needs. 

Check out our e-Commerce insights article for more on this topic. Or get in touch if you need help with your e-Commerce market research. 

Two post it notes - one with a light bulb sketch and one with 5Ws - why? what? who? where? when?

Photo Credits

Woman peeking out from bush : Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Glasses : Photo by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash

Woman holding credit card near Macbook : Photo by Pickawood on Unsplash

Google on a laptop : Photo by Benjamin Dada on Unsplash

Clock : Photo by Agê Barros on Unsplash

Question mark sign :  Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

Person reading with sparkly lights : Photo by Nong V on Unsplash

Idea Bulb Post it (adapted) : Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash

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