You know you can get great bed linens at Target, a crazy deal on plants at The Home Depot, and have essentials such as shower curtain liners delivered right to your door from Amazon. But what kind of store stocks its shelves with inventory that ranges from a wing-shaped charm studded with 170 tiny diamonds to a pair of kids' Converse All-Star sneakers to left-handed kitchen shears—all at an Everest-steep discount? And how did they end up with such a strange selection of items on their shelves?
The answer to both of those questions is Unclaimed Baggage. That's the name of the store, and the source of all their inventory. Both a 50,000-square-foot physical store in Scottsboro, Alabama, and an online marketplace, Unclaimed Baggage exclusively sells items that were found in lost luggage, suitcases that, after four months of attempted reunification, never made it back to their owners.
We know, "lost luggage" is a phrase that sparks fear in the heart of anyone who has ever checked a bag. But this store is the glass-half-full aspect of that sad tale. Thanks to Unclaimed Baggage, instead of ending up in landfill, the contents of the misbegotten luggage find their way to people who need them—roughly for every item sold, another is donated through the store's Reclaimed for Good program. And the ones that are sold find their ways into the hands of savvy, sustainable shoppers like you.
More From House Beautiful
How Does Unclaimed Baggage Work?
First, rest easy(ish). The site points out that only .03 percent of bags are ever permanently separated from their owners. That number has increased post-pandemic, but even the 2022 high of 7.6 bags being lost per 1000 passengers, according to SITA, an air transport communications and information technology specialist, means that you have way less than a 1 percent chance of having a bag permanently lost while flying.
Still, with over four billion bags being checked every year, even the conservative estimate of .03 percent adds up to...enough bags to fill the city-block-long store in Scottsboro. (Although, truth be told, they also get unclaimed bags from taxis, hotels, and anywhere luggage may be lost.)
When a bag is not picked up at baggage claim, the airline hangs onto it for three months, trying to reunite it with its owner. After that, it's sold to Unclaimed Baggage, where staff sort it and decide if the item should be Resold (in the brick-and-mortar or online store), Repurposed (clothing, eyeglasses, medical supplies and wheelchairs are among the items that are repaired and given to those who need them) or Recycled. Clothes are laundered at the largest dry cleaner in Alabama, electronics are wiped clean of any identifying info (so that's where the Kindle you left in the setback pocket went!) and jewelry is appraised. Then staffers price the item and it's ready to be (re)-sold. The brick and mortar store "is stocked with up to 7,000 new items every single day; the inventory is constantly changing," says Sonni Hood, Public Relations and Communications Manager for Unclaimed Baggage. "The online store is stocked with around 5,000 new items a week."
Who Is The Genius Who Dreamed Up This Magical Place?
Local businessman Doyle Owens was listening to his ham radio over a half century ago, when he heard a Trailways employee complaining about how many bus riders forgot their bags, and noting that the company didn't know what to do with them. He borrowed $300, bought up their stock of unclaimed suitcases, set up their contents on some card tables, and sold the lot in one day. In 1973, "he scored his first contract with an airline," Hood says. Now, they partner with all major airlines and, Hood says, "other travel and transportation entertainment, hospitality venues. Anywhere someone might lose something, we're able to provide a sustainable solution to them."
They also receive lost cargo shipments. "So, online, most items are unique one-offs, but you might see that we have multiple of the exact same items—a lost cargo shipment where we receive a whole box of Nike shorts or backpacks or whatever it may be," says Hood. She adds, "We also will unpack things that are brand new with tags all the time because what do you do when you go on vacation when or when you're traveling? You're gonna go shopping."
What Can I Find There?
A current scan of the inventory includes a high resolution security drone camera for search and rescue operations 40 % off at just $8,000); a turquoise glitter Gucci one-piece bathing suit (women's size M), 23 e-readers ($24-$250), 58 backpacks (sorry, the Mario Brothers backpack sold for $16 already) and five emerald rings (from $87 for cubic zirconia to $19,700 for a 9.8 carat emerald platinum cocktail ring with diamond trim). Each purchase also comes with a life lesson: Don't transport valuables in your checked luggage—rings are for fingers, not Samsonites.
I Have to See This Place In Person
Well, Godspeed! You won't be the only pilgrim to this bargain mecca. It's one of the top tourist attractions in the area, drawing over a million visitors every year. (Unclaimed Baggage is also one of the top employers in the county.) Hood reports that each year they have visitors from every state, and they've hosted guests from over 40 countries. "It's important to us that if people have traveled to us from all this way, that they can spend a full day here," says Hood. To that end, they also have an indoor cafe, and, as of April, the Unclaimed Baggage Museum, which showcases, as Hood says, "around a hundred of the most unique, interesting things we've ever found."
A taxidermy rattlesnake represents the live one that turned up in a bag's exterior pocket. ("Surely he just slipped inside during storage or en route to Scottsboro—no one was traveling with a live rattlesnake," hypothesizes Hood, who points out that snake was released unharmed.) There's also a full suit of armor, and three of the ancient Egyptian artifacts—circa 1500 BC—which were found in a well-worn Gucci suitcase. (The rest of those were auctioned at Christie's.) They've also come across opium scales, a shrunken head, and a flirting fan from the 1800s.
Interested in finding a little misplaced treasure of your own? Remind yourself "finders, keepers" and peruse the Weird & Wonderful Collection on their website, or buy a Mystery Box of Women's Apparel, Lingerie, or U.S. Souvenirs, and give lost luggage a new home.
A New-York-based freelance writer and editor, Eleni N. Gage is the author of the travel memoir North of Ithaka, the novels Other Waters and The Ladies of Managua, the gift book Lucky in Love: Traditions, Customs, and Rituals to Personalize Your Wedding, and the children’s ebook Wiggly Tooth.