Airlines usually compensate passengers for lost luggage; the industry average is $1,250. When found, the airlines sell the luggage rather than throw it away, Nelson says. “Believe me, we don’t make a profit,” she says.
It is impossible to determine exactly how many pieces of luggage go missing, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
During a nine-month period last year, 2 million travelers who flew on the top 10 airlines reported their bags mishandled or lost. There were 373 million airline passengers during that time. Of those lost bags, 98 percent were returned to their original owners.
Still, that 2 percent has made a nice business for Owens’ family. More than 800,000 customers come through the doors of Unclaimed Baggage annually, he says.
And, remarkably, the company doesn’t promote itself. Owens relies mainly on word-of-mouth and free listings in tourists’ guides to attract customers.
The approach seems to be working. On a recent weekday afternoon, the store’s parking lot was filled with cars from Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Rhode Island and Florida.
Shoppers browsing through racks of clothing, which makes up 60 percent of the store’s merchandise, expressed no guilt in taking advantage of travelers’ misfortune.
“I truly don’t care. I know they’re being reimbursed,” says Judy Rodgers of Scottsboro. “It’s like looking for treasure. You never know what you’ll find.”