Stupid Question ™
July 24, 2003
By John Ruch
Q: Are there really stores that sell unclaimed airline luggage?
A: Actually, there appears to be only one: the Unclaimed Baggage Center (UBC) in Scottsboro, Alabama (with a branch store in lovely Boaz, Alabama).
This 30,000-square-foot lost-luggage megastore (complete with a museum and “espresso café”) has managed to squash virtually all competition. How isn’t clear, as the company’s business practices are mysterious and secretive. UBC won’t even say which airlines it works with. A hint of how this cozy set-up with the airlines works may lie in current CEO Bryan Owens’ resume, which includes developing baggage-tracking software for airline use.
UBC sent me the press kit that is regurgitated in all articles about it, but ignored my repeated requests for an interview.
So I, too, shall regurgitate. UBC was founded in 1970 by Doyle and Sue Owens (parents of Bryan) as an outlet for unclaimed luggage from the local bus company. The business quickly expanded into airline luggage.
Today, UBC deals in both unclaimed passenger baggage and in unclaimed cargo (think big-screen TVs). Some of this stuff is just forgotten by passengers and freight-shippers. But it’s pretty clear (though UBC is too protective of the airlines to say this openly) that the majority of the product is checked luggage lost by the airlines, who generally pay out up to $2,500 to passengers who go through the complaint process.
Without giving a source for its figures, UBC claims only 0.002 percent of airline baggage is “unclaimed” (meaning forgotten and/or lost). That still means about 1 million pieces per year flowing into UBC.
UBC throws away or donates a lot of the items it finds in the beat-up bags and boxes that come to its facility. The rest are sold to the public at bargain prices.
About 60 percent of the stock is clothing, but they find a little bit of everything, from laptop computers to surfboards. Two-hundred-dollar sunglasses go for $25. Jewelry is marked at half its appraised value. CDs go for $3.50 used, $5 unopened. And “clothing’ includes everything from Hawaiian shirts to wedding dresses.
And yes, they find very weird stuff sometimes. Greatest hits include a case of ancient Egyptian artifacts, including a mummified falcon; a 41-carat emerald; a 1770 violin; a cowboy hat signed by Muhammad Ali; and a prop goblin from the movie “Labyrinth.” Some of this stuff is on display in the store museum.
Shoppers have reportedly found money hidden in items bought at UBC, including a Barbie doll and a soap-on-a-rope.
UBC claims only one known case of a shopper finding their own lost luggage—a pair of ski boots found by a Georgia visitor several years ago.
You can visit UBC at 509 W. Willow St. in Scottsboro, or shop online at www.unclaimedbaggage.com.