Crowdsource your shopping list with Prowl

SlateNovember 27, 2013 

— – For years now, I’ve been searching for the perfect turtleneck: the kind of wide-ribbed, medium-weight, funky-colored sweater that a guest on an early “Sesame Street” episode might wear while shooting the breeze with Big Bird. The prevailing turtleneck styles on the market tend to be either too flimsy – fine for layering but lacking the body to be worn on their own – or just boxy and flat-woven and boring.

What I needed was a way to reliably crowdsource my shopping with a community of people who were, in essence, agreeing to accompany me on a shopping trip and expecting me to return the favor. That’s when I joined the social networking site Prowl.

Unlike Pinterest, the megasuccessful online bulletin-board network that allows users to curate and share galleries of their favorite objects, places, recipes, the Prowl is more narrowly focused on the act of shopping itself. Its users generally go there to post not aspirational images of stuff they might like to buy, cook or make if they had the time and money, but stuff they’re actively considering buying right now.

One of the network’s co-founders, Tracy Odell, told me that the Prowl seeks to play the role of a friend when you go shopping together: someone to advise, troubleshoot, brainstorm and co-ogle. She compares the relationships among users on sites like Pinterest to that of two strangers waiting to try on clothes in adjacent dressing rooms. You can get a look at the dress your neighbor is interested in, compliment her on her taste, maybe even grab one off the rack for yourself, but it’s not the place to exchange practical information, opinions, or advice: “In real life, you wouldn’t consider yourself to be shopping with that person,” Odell says.

Ask and answer

That’s the appeal of the Prowl’s “ask and answer” boards, where users can rustle up virtual shopping partners by posting queries about the items they’re seeking and collect suggestions for where to find them. Reading through these exchanges can be fun even if you have no interest in acquiring the product in question.

A guy describes in detail his beat-up, “Lebowski-ish” mock-turtleneck sweater and crowdsources ideas for a similarly durable but more stylish replacement. The mother of a 9-year-old “Sid Vicious wannabe” asks, somewhat abashedly, if anyone knows where she can find child-sized pleather pants. Another woman sets out to put together an Olivia-Pope-from-Scandal wardrobe on the cheap, and, with the wisdom of crowds and the Prowl editorial team, puts together a season’s worth of sleek monochrome ensembles.

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