Airport check-in,© Corbis

Where does lost luggage go when it's never recovered by its rightful owners? If a U.S.-based airline has it, it probably goes to the tiny town of Scottsboro in northeastern Alabama.

There, at the Unclaimed Baggage Center, the contents of lost suitcases -- everything from iPads and cameras to wedding dresses and diamond rings -- are for sale at 20% to 80% off estimated retail prices

Loyal shopper and Scottsboro resident Alan Garner recently purchased a pair of waterproof Monster headphones for $3.29 that he guesses would retail for $129. But his favorite treasure was a ukulele. He found it in a bin with other instruments and paid $6 for it, then did a little research when he got home. "It ended up being a 1921 Martin ukulele, valued at $600 or $800," he says.

Of course, not every item is a treasure, and some visitors find more hype than happy happenstance at the 42-year-old store, which purchases baggage by the truckload -- sight unseen -- from airlines, as well as trains, bus lines and cargo shipments.

You can't just go in with a shopping list, and you have to work to find really good deals, fans say. Longtime visitors lament the good old days, when you could get some amazing bargains -- either because the people doing the pricing were less experienced or because they put less emphasis on labels, according to some of the reviewers on Yelp.

A tourist attraction

Detractors aside, the 40,000-square-foot warehouse has put this Jackson County town on the map -- for something more positive than the infamous Scottsboro Boys trials of the 1930s.

Only 45 minutes from Huntsville, Ala., and within three hours' drive of Nashville and Knoxville, Tenn., Birmingham, Ala., and Atlanta, the center is a "road-trip destination" for shoppers from all over the region, says Brenda Cantrell, the UBC's brand ambassador, who got her start with the company in guest services 14 years ago.

Some make one trip in a lifetime, but others visit more often. "For each of the last 18 years, my family and I have made a pilgrimage to the UBC for their annual ski sale. It is awesome!" writes "mwpyle" on Trip Advisor.

"LOVE THIS STORE!!! I got my prom dress here for only $40 and it was the exact color and style I wanted so thank y'all so much!," posted "Corrie Studyvin" on the Unclaimed Baggage Facebook page, which has more than 16,000 Likes.

Fans are unequivocally enthusiastic, but critics are equally emphatic. The 126 Trip Advisor visitor ratings are 42% "excellent" and 33% "terrible," with the rest split among "very good," "average" and "poor."

What happens to lost luggage

In 2011, 99.1% of checked airline baggage worldwide was delivered on time to passengers, according to the 2012 Baggage Report created by SITA, a company involved in air transport information technology and communications. Of the 0.9% of bags that weren't, most (85.6%) were simply delayed -- while 11.9% were "damaged or pilfered" and 2.5% lost or stolen.

Which means that globally, 99.9775% of luggage gets to its rightful owners eventually -- if not in perfect condition.

The percentage is impressive -- unless you're the owner of a lost or damaged bag:

  • 2.87 billion passengers globally
  • 25.8 million mishandled bags
  • 3.07 million damaged or pilfered bags
  • 645,000 lost or stolen bags

When bags are lost in public places, such as airports and train stations, they sometimes end up in auctions such as those chronicled on the Travel Channel series "Baggage Battles." "When this property goes unclaimed, it's put up for public auction and sold to the highest bidder," intones the announcer at the start of each episode.

But when bags are lost while in the airlines' possession, they usually go to the Unclaimed Baggage Center, which has contracts with "most domestic airlines" -- the company won't reveal its sources specifically, nor the terms of its agreements with them.

Before that happens, however, the airlines spend three months trying to reconnect bags with passengers, looking for identification both on and in bags, Cantrell says. "By the time things reach us, we know the airlines have tried everything to find the owners," she says in her soft Southern drawl.

If your suitcase gets lost in transit on a domestic flight, you may qualify for up to $3,300 per bag. Airline liability for lost luggage on international flights is more complicated and is limited by either the Warsaw or Montreal convention. Under the former, the liability limit is $9.07 per pound, or up to $640 per bag, according to Delta Air Lines' website.

Major carriers such as United Airlines limit their liability on certain "high-value, fragile or perishable items" in checked bags on domestic flights. The list on United's website includes jewelry, precious metals, cameras, electronic items, video equipment, heirlooms, antiques, artifacts, works of art, silverware, irreplaceable items and "any other similar valuable property or irreplaceable property included in the passenger's checked or carry-on baggage with or without the knowledge of United."

But many of these items are sold at the Unclaimed Baggage warehouse. In fact, the store's jewelry counter is a customer favorite, featuring everything from costume jewelry to $20,000 diamond rings.

"My wonderful boyfriend asked me to marry him this afternoon with this beautiful engagement ring from the jewelry department at Unclaimed Baggage Center!! And he asked me at the jewelry counter!!!," "Charity Wininger" posted on Facebook in February 2011.

Though the UBC pays for the luggage, after spending money to try to find owners and paying fees to passengers for lost bags, the airlines don't profit from lost luggage, Cantrell says.

Click here to become a fan of MSN Money on Facebook