It used to be that when women needed new clothes, they went to the mall. Now malls are like relics of a different America — they’re shuttering in droves and turning into sad, vacant ghost towns. You can blame it on a lot of things, but the steady growth of online shopping has certainly not helped matters.

Particularly with the latest development, which mimics the benefits of a shopping mall with its abilit to discover and browse — catalog apps. Rather than take the initiative to type “jcrew.com” or “anthropologie.com” into their Web browsers, users are finding their way to those sites through aggregators like Pinterest, or Pickie, or Hipiti, or Polyvore.

An early player in this ever-crowded catalog category, Shop It To Me has mostly acted as a utilitarian tool. Users tell the site they like dresses from Theory in size 6, and they’re emailed every time new ones appear online. It’s like one of those flight-tracking services, but for clothes. It’s also extremely effective, so much so that the 20-person Shop It To Me hasn’t had to raise capital beyond its angel round of funding in 2007.

But with catalog sites and apps flooding the market hawking the trendy Big Data Personalization, it’s time for Shop It To Me, with 4 million users, to update its site.

The company has done so this month with Threads, its new, beefed-up personalization engine. Rather than indicate just sizes and favorite brands, Shop It To Me now asks users for preferences around trends, styles, and particular items. You might love Marc Jacobs purses but hate his apparel. You might be in the market for a color block dress or a trendy leather skirt without really caring which brand it comes from. With Threads, Shop It To Me gets granular.

The site does so while offering a wider, more browsable selection. And there is, thank God, a search bar. Even better, there’s a “max price” option. If I indicate I like Marc Jacobs purses but know I shouldn’t be dropping $1,000 on one this season, I can tell Shop It To Me my max price is $200. I won’t be shown that anything above that price even exists.

Founder and CEO Charlie Graham explains that his app has resonated with women, because it goes beyond big data. Algorithm-driven recommendations based on someone’s Facebook Likes, Pinterest Pins, or browsing history come up short, he said. Shop It To Me users have indicated exactly what they like and want — human curation, done by the human in question. And yes, it looks Pinterest-y.

Graham also argued that recommendations based on one’s social networks and browsing history are a little creepy. I agree, but only to an extent. Retargeting (the thing where a banner ad follows you around the Internet) can be unsettling. It can also be effective, and very occasionally, it can be a helpful reminder. Ultimately it seems people have begun to accept that they’re being tracked online and are willing to give up some privacy in order to get better content. It brings up all kinds of problems related to privacy rights and the filter bubble, but if you ask Mark Zuckerberg, people are mostly apathetic about the issue. The era of privacy is apparently over, and giving up personal data in exchange for free and better content has become the standard cost of entry online, particularly with younger users.

Shop It To Me competitors have proliferated on the iPad and Web, from deal aggregators to mobile comparison apps to browsing catalog apps, which now have their own category in the App Store. Shop It To Me will remain on the Web, Graham says, because he’s convinced that’s still where the majority of online shopping happens. Still, around 30 percent of Shop It To Me’s traffic happens on its mobile-enabled site.

[Image Credit: Raphael Borja on Flickr]