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.

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What's in store

The huge store is laid out (.pdf file) a bit like a department store, with items grouped by category: electronics, luggage and sporting goods, women's apparel, men's apparel, children's clothing and formal wear. Clothing items are sorted by type and color. A cafe and espresso bar sits near the main entrance, and an annex across the parking lot offers gifts, housewares, health and beauty items, hardware and tools.

"When people hear about Unclaimed Baggage, they expect it to be a great big thrift store, but it's as nice as any department store I've been in," says Garner, the Scottsboro shopper who found the ukulele.

The store stocks 5,000 to 7,000 new items daily, Monday through Saturday. On one recent day, the store had the following in stock:

  • A Selmer clarinet for $2,499.99
  • A handful of Apple iPads and iPods for about 20% below retail
  • An oil painting titled "Sunny Autumn" by Leonid Afremov, priced at $250.99 (estimated gallery value: $1,400)
  • A pearl- and glass-beaded wedding dress, size 8, for $149.99 (estimated value: $300 to $500)
  • A 1.60-carat diamond, 18-karat white gold ring for $6,500.99 (worth approximately $13,000)

Of course, a number of one-of-a-kind items that come through the warehouse are a better fit for the center's museum than the buying shelves. Some of the most unusual:

  • A set of bagpipes
  • The skin of an 8½-foot boa constrictor
  • Hoggle from the movie "Labyrinth," a puppet created at Henson's Creative Workshop
  • A half-dozen matching Vegas-showgirl costumes with headpieces, in several sizes
  • A 4½-foot-wide moose rack
  • Traditional instruments from Afghanistan, Tibet and Russia
  • A 19th-century replica suit of armor
  • An 8-foot remote-controlled model airplane

"Nothing surprises us anymore," Cantrell insists. "You kind of chuckle, but you get past the 'I don't believe it' phase. You just about see it all through here."

There's still some wonder in her voice as she describes the sheer volume of certain types of items. Wedding dresses, for example. "You don't know if they were on their way to the wedding or from the wedding," Cantrell says.

Except for special events, such as the annual ski sale every November, the store puts goods on the floor as quickly as possible after acquiring them. But because the bags have already been with the airline for at least 90 days, clothes may be from last season, and recovered beach reads may no longer be on the best-seller list.

What's not in the store

Some lost luggage goes unclaimed because its owners might fear prosecution if they asked for its return. Cantrell says UBC employees have found illegal drugs stashed in the linings of suitcases or hidden inside toiletries. "People hide stuff, and they've gotten very creative and have gone to great lengths," she says.

Contraband aside, less than half of what the company acquires actually makes it onto the sales floor. Although some people pack their best clothes and new purchases in their checked luggage, a lot of bags contain well-worn clothing -- some of it dirty -- and personal items that no one else would want, Cantrell explains. Some things are thrown away, but most that is salvageable goes to people in need, as does apparel that has been on the sales floor for 60 to 90 days.

"We donate a substantial amount to charitable organizations," she says. "We try to be very intentional with our giving."

The company donates car seats, strollers and luggage to the Department of Human Resources for foster kids; wheelchairs, walkers, crutches and canes to a program called Wheels for the World; and clothing and other items to the Salvation Army's Disaster Relief program, a thrift store in nearby Huntsville and a local pregnancy center. Prescription eyeglasses are donated to the Lions Club Sight First program, which distributes glasses to humanitarian eye clinics around the world.

"It gives you a really great feeling to know what was lost is now found in somebody else's possession," Cantrell says.

The brand ambassador believes part of the reason the UBC has strong relationships with its airline partners is the company's values. "Other people have tried to enter the (unclaimed baggage) marketplace, but nobody can compare to what we bring to the table," she says.

What if I find my lost luggage?

If you're wondering whether the Kindle you accidentally left in the seatback of 23D on your recent flight from Dallas to Chicago somehow ended up in Alabama, don't hold your breath.

In 42 years, the UBC has had only one verifiable story about a customer who found a lost item -- and he didn't come looking for it.

"A gentleman came in and bought a pair of ski boots for $45 for his wife, and he took them home, and she said, 'These look very familiar,'" Cantrell says. "She looked inside, and her maiden name was in there." By pure chance, the man had repurchased a pair of boots his wife had lost years earlier.

"There's other quirky things," Cantrell says, "but that's the only documented case we have."

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