Luggage is never really lost, it’s just misplaced.
So where is it? There’s a good chance it’s on a store shelf in northern Alabama, where the country’s largest lost-baggage retailer sells everything from pearls and diamond-studded cuff links to boxer shorts and half-used cans of shaving cream.
The Unclaimed Baggage Center, which opened in 1970 and stretches an entire city block, has an agreement with most U.S airlines to resell unclaimed luggage and its contents for half the original value.
From Gold to Cashmere
Need a 41-carat emerald? Owner Bryan Owens will sell it to you for just $29,500 — half the appraised value, he says. A Ralph Lauren cashmere sports coat? $100. A red and yellow boogie board? A bargain at $8. How about a Palm Pilot for $125?
“I come here pretty much every week,” says Sherrie Rhoades of Huntsville, about 40 miles southwest of Scottsboro, a tiny manufacturing town near the Tennessee border. “Today I needed a nice hat for a funeral this weekend, and I found two.”
Rhoades paid $5 for her two sun hats, a common find in a store that sells shirts for $2, jockey shorts for $1 and shampoo for 50 cents a bottle.
And, yes, the clothing is washed and pressed, or drycleaned before it is sold, says Owens, who adds thousands of items to his shelves daily. The supply comes not only from unclaimed passenger bags, but unclaimed air freight, and items left at airports or on airplanes.
More than a million caps, shirts and cameras are sold each year. Designer clothes, electronics and, well, luggage, are other popular sellers.
The rare finds, such as a leather Stetson hat signed “To Brent from Muhammad Ali 9/2/88,” are part of the company’s tiny museum, which includes a 1770 violin and a muppet from a Jim Henson movie.
“It’s a little bit like Christmas everyday. We get these bags that come in and we never know what we’ll find,” says Owens, who sports a gold Cartier watch reclaimed from a lost suitcase.
The store was founded 30 years ago by Owens’ father, Doyle. As the story goes, Owens borrowed a pickup truck and $300 to buy lost luggage from the Greyhound bus company and then dumped the mishmash of button-down shirts and electric razors on a fold-out table.
The business has since grown to a 50,000-square-foot store, with over 110 workers and a cafe selling Starbucks coffee. Customers can shop six days a week at the store, or browse for merchandise at any time on the store’s
But don’t contact Owens looking for your favorite sweatshirt or gifts you bought for your children that were lost by the airlines.
Owens, who took over his father’s business in 1995, has a written agreement with airlines to not disclose from whom he buys merchandise or for how much. He can’t even say how much money he makes annually.
ID Tags Missing
However, he says he has no competition.
Southwest Airlines spokeswoman Kristin Nelson says the airline does sell its unclaimed bags, but is contractually obligated to keep the name of the business confidential.
She says Southwest, as with most airlines, conducts an exhaustive search to reunite passengers with their luggage. Southwest keeps luggage for four months before selling it.
Usually, luggage is lost because the identification tag is ripped off and there is nothing inside the bag to link it to a passenger, she says. Sometimes the unmarked luggage goes to the wrong airport, compounding the problem.
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.”