Airline Lost Your Luggage? Here’s Where it Lands.

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Shoppers drive hours, in some cases, to get to the Unclaimed Baggage Center's annual winter ski sale. It's bigger than Black Friday for the retailer, which sells the contents of lost luggage.
Shoppers drive hours, in some cases, to get to the Unclaimed Baggage Center's annual winter ski sale. It's bigger than Black Friday for the retailer, which sells the contents of lost luggage.

Gigi Douban, WBHM

The holiday season is upon us, and that means more air travel. Maybe you can’t quite squeeze all of your stuff into a carry-on, so you pay the extra fee and check those bags. Most of the time your luggage is waiting for you at the other end. But a small percentage of bags get lost and stay lost – till they make their way to a place where the contents are sold. It’s called the Unclaimed Baggage Center.

On a recent Saturday morning in Scottsboro, about an hour south of the Tennessee line, there was a winter ski sale. This sale is a big deal for the Unclaimed Baggage Center. So big, 28-year-old Casey Anderson drove more than 300 miles from Crestview, Florida. He snagged a lot of snowboarding gear:  two snowboards, a helmet, some goggles and boots.

The discounts were steep.

“I’d say for two boards and everything I’d say $250, $300,” Anderson says. The cost of that gear bought new? “Oh man I’d say at least a grand, easy.”

Anderson says it was a deal even after you factored in the cost of the Airbnb he got in Hunstville the night before so he could be one of the first ones in the door at 8 am. And there were dozens more like him – people even camped out in the parking lot for this special annual sale. There were t-shirt and gift card giveaways. The store showed a movie in the parking lot the night before the sale.

Jennifer Smith of Bryant arrived at the Unclaimed Baggage Center with her mother at 6 am. Two hours later, she moves in with the crowds and starts piling jackets over her arm. Her strategy? “Grabbing stuff and then I’m gonna go back and go through it and put back what I don’t want,” the mother of three says.

Casey Anderson says the deals on the snowboarding gear he found were well worth the trip to Scottsboro from Clearwater, FL.
Casey Anderson says the deals on the snowboarding gear he found were well worth the trip to Scottsboro from Clearwater, FL.
Gigi Douban

Smith’s mother, Cathy Hill, stands off to the side with the shopping cart piled high with probably 30 name-brand coats –North Face, Patagonia, Columbia. “I’m just doing the tag team. She gets it and I hold it,” Hill says. “I’m guarding the loot.”

Hill says she cannot believe her daughter got her out of bed at 5 am for this for the third year in a row. And like Black Friday for many shoppers, it’s an event, Brenda Cantrell, brand ambassador for the Unclaimed Baggage Center says.

“We’ve been holding a year’s worth of product to roll out on this day,” Cantrell says.

Brenda Cantrell, left, brand ambassador for the Unclaimed Baggage Center, meets with staffers. She started wearing a ref shirt during the annual winter sale a few years ago after shoppers got rowdy.
Brenda Cantrell, left, brand ambassador for the Unclaimed Baggage Center, meets with staffers. She started wearing a ref shirt during the annual winter sale a few years ago after shoppers got rowdy.
Gigi Douban

The company has been in business almost 50 years. And it offers thousands of items at 20 to 80 percent off suggested retail. Every one of those items was, at some point, in someone’s lost luggage. And people travel with weird stuff: antlers, taxidermy frogs, a sitar, a backbone, probably something a doctor or a chiropractor took to a conference. And then there’s this ugly tandem Christmas sweater with two neck holes.

The Unclaimed Baggage Center has exclusive contracts with all the major US airlines to buy luggage that isn’t claimed within 90 days. The company buys that luggage sight unseen. Unclaimed Baggage Center won’t disclose how much it makes from the sales. John Strong, who teaches finance at the College of William and Mary, says most retailers don’t want in on this.

Cathy Hill stands guard over her daughter's finds while her daughter shops nearby.
Cathy Hill stands guard over her daughter’s finds while her daughter shops nearby.
Gigi Douban

“They wouldn’t know what they were buying,” he says, “so for traditional retailers, that’s not a very attractive proposition.”

A couple things have made business a little tougher for the Unclaimed Baggage Center. First, baggage handling fees discourage some people from checking their bags in the first place.

And second, airlines have gotten better at tracking bags, so they lose fewer of them.

But Cantrell, the brand ambassador, says even if it is just a tiny percent of baggage that gets lost, millions of people fly each year. She says that’s enough to keep the Unclaimed Baggage Center in business. And whatever items it can’t sell, the company donates.

Gigi Douban

Gigi Douban

News Director