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SHOPPING TREASURES AMONG LOST LUGGAGE
Unclaimed Baggage Center Lets You Shop in Luggage

By Patrick Crowley

Unclaimed Baggage Haven

The last time you flew on a business trip did you, or the airline, lose a Nicole Miller leather jacket? Or how about a snazzy gold pair of Kenneth Cole boots? Or maybe even a Francesco Biasia purse, a WCM leather belt or a double strand cultured pearl necklace appraised at $13,650?

Well, those wayward items of lost luggage have found a home on the sales floor of a one-of-a-kind store, a sort of misplaced baggage heaven where clothes, jewelry, shoes, jackets, cameras, golf clubs and more go to find new lives with new owners.

Tucked in the northern Alabama foothills of the Appalachian Mountains is a placed called The Unclaimed Baggage Center. Part salvage operation and part department store, this retailer mines products from luggage lost by airlines or left behind in airports by passengers. Located in Scottsboro, Ala., the 32-year-old company handles about 1 million items a year, with 6,000 new pieces of merchandise – from jewels to clothes to Egyptian artifacts – hitting the store’s floor each day.

"There’s no other store like it," said Donna Campbell, a Scottsboro, Ala., resident who has been shopping at the center for 20 years. "It’s so unique because there are new and different types of merchandise every day. I shop there at least once a week, sometimes more than that," she said.

"You never know what you are going to find."

About 60 percent of the store’s merchandise is clothing with the remainder being sporting goods, jewelry, books, eyeglasses and sunglasses, electronic equipment, cameras and luggage, including many designer bags.

The store has a Web site – www.Unclaimedbaggage.com – that offers online shopping. There is a snack bar serving espresso and Starbucks Coffee along with sandwiches, salads and cookies. And Owens said there are great deals to be found, including cameras for under $10, CDs starting at $3.50 and most items at 50 to 80 percent less than what they would cost new.

"It’s like Christmas everyday," says Bryan Owens, whose father started the company in 1970. Owens took over in 1995 and now watches over an operation that attracts more than one million people a year, making it one of Alabama’s top tourist attractions.

Lost Wedding Dresses for Sale
The Unclaimed Baggage Center also has wedding dresses for sale.

"People come again and again," said Owens, 43. "You can find a lot of practical merchandise here. But I think people really enjoy going through all the stuff and seeing what new treasures they can find. We have so many new items each day that people never know what they are going to discover."

Doyle Owens, Bryan’s father, was selling insurance in the 1970 when he got the idea to approach two airlines – Eastern and National airlines – and offer to buy the baggage no one had claimed.

"Nobody else was doing it so he started it as a part time venture, borrowing $300 from one grandfather and a pickup truck from the other grandfather to get the business going," Bryan Owens said.

Doyle Owens ultimately forged exclusive, long-term contracts with all the major airlines – commercial as well as freight carriers – to buy unclaimed bags and merchandise. Unclaimed Baggage Center does not reveal details about the contracts, including how much it pays for the merchandise.

Among the items recently listed on the center’s Web site, which accepts orders, were:

  • Women’s clothing: A Nicole Miller Leather jacket, $125; an Adidas jacket, $15; a pair of dark stone, straight leg Calvin Klein jeans, $24; and four pairs of Newport News shorts, $8 apiece.
  • Shoes: Italian-made Bally Sandals, $80; hot pink Estelle Yomeda Butterfly mules, $100; gold high-leg Kenneth Cole boots, $65; two pairs of Murtosa slip tides, $65; and two par of Riverstone casual shoes, $10.
  • Accessories: Bally leather purse, $245; Francesco Biasia leather handbag, $85; Madeinchina Ro purse, $100 (the Web site claims is retails for $275); Nicole Miller sunglasses, $34; an O’Neil Jeans hat, $11; a Tote Le Monde purse, $100; and a WCE leather belt, $25.
  • Jewelry: A double strand cultured pearl necklace, which was appraised at $13,650, for $6,825; seven and eight inch gold bracelets, $3; and a 18k gold Titan watch, $405.
Lost Luggage & Clothes
Clothes, clothes, clothes!
"Most of the stuff is pretty standard, but we do see some weird things," Owens said.

The "weird things" – such as dentures – are thrown away. All clothes and garments are dry-cleaned at the center’s onsite laundry. And about 25 percent of what Owens buys are given to charity.

There is also a part of the Unclaimed Baggage Center, which covers more than a city block, where unclaimed air cargo is sold. These are primarily business-to-business shipments that were lost or unclaimed. Present inventory includes automotive items, crafts, textiles, cosmetics and household items, according to the center’s Web site.

Even though people ask, the store cannot find specific items lost by travelers or airlines.

"We regret there is no way we can find anything you lost while traveling," the center says on its Web site. "By the time the luggage reaches us, every effort has been made by the airlines to find the rightful owners. This effort by the airlines to return the goods results in a three to four month lag before we receive the baggage."

Items donated in the past included crutches given to the VFW, strollers donated to a teen pregnancy center and clothes contributed to the needy, Owens said.

Of course the supply of merchandise for the center is endless.

Even though less than one percent of all bags are permanently lost by airlines, that still translates to more 400,000 pieces of luggage annually, according to a joint study by Wichita State and The University of Nebraska at Omaha that was released in March.

And while the airlines do lose bags, some are simply never claimed while others with no identification are left at airports or on planes.

Most airlines will hold the bags up to 90 days or more, waiting for someone to make a claim.

But the majority of bags are returned to passengers within a day or two. Once lost luggage is found, airlines will deliver it to a passenger’s home or hotel.

All airlines have policies and procedures to deal with lost luggage. Generally, passengers who have lost luggage should notify an airline service agent and then fill out the necessary forms that will be used to track and find the lost bags.

Typically a passenger also fills out a claim form. If the bag is not found or cannot be matched with the owner, the airline could pay up to $2,500, the federally mandated liability limit on lost or damaged baggage.

But as Delta Air Lines points out on its Web site, the maximum liability reimbursement is not automatic. "Damage or loss value must be proven," the airline says.

Last year the Department of Transportation raised the liability limit from $1,250 to the current level of $2,500. Each July the department will review the level and increase it up to $100 if inflation warrants an increase.

However, many items are not covered under the luggage liability limit, including cameras, electronic devices, computers, jewelry, business papers, cash, perishable goods and certain other fragile items. So it might be a good idea to purchase additional coverage.

Delta, for instance, offers maximum liability limits up to $3,000 for $30; up to $4,000 for $40; and up to $5,000 for $50.

To help avoid lost luggage, American Airlines offers these tips for passengers checking luggage at the airport:

  • Only check luggage that is sturdy enough to withstand airline baggage handling systems.
  • Never check a bag that does not completely close.
  • Never check a bag designed to be carried on the lane.
  • Most briefcases, tote bags and plastic garment covers are not made to be checked as luggage.
  • Do not overpack bags.
  • Clearly label all bags with a name, address and phone number.
  • Consider replacing old or worn luggage.
More information can be found at the Unclaimed Baggage Center website.

 

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