Where to buy unclaimed luggage, and why you should
Like many other people, I used to think that “lost” luggage from airlines was auctioned off in a dramatic manner as on the early seasons of the show “Baggage Battles.” I'm still not sure where those suitcases came from, but it turns out that every American airline has a contract with one company, and they sell all the best items individually out of their fascinating retail store in Scottsboro, Alabama.
Thanks to a recent visit to the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama as part of a press trip, I got the full story and I can't wait to go back. It turns out that things work differently from how I expected, which I will explain below. It also turns out that the Unclaimed Baggage Center is one of Alabama's top tourist attractions, with over 1 million visitors each year.
This is not an auction, but it's still really fun
Again, those auctions must be for private shipping companies or other modes of transportation because all of the US airline unclaimed luggage gets sold to this store and processed. They gave us a demonstration of how it works, which they do for the public at 2:30pm every day in the store (closed Sundays). It's very interesting how it works so if you are nearby at that time you should make a point to go.
The thing is, this 40,000-square-foot store (about the size of a small-town supermarket) is packed with the best and most desirable items that have been lost on airlines in the last few months. More than half of it is clothes, as you'd expect, but there are also electronics, jewelry, sports equipment, and almost anything else you can think of that might have been in airline luggage. Just to see what is there was far more entertaining than I had expected, and I picked up some great bargains on my visit.
Important: It looks like a high-end thrift store, but it's not
Since almost all the items in the huge store are “used” to some degree, the first thing you think of is that it's like a very clean and modern thrift store. But it's almost the opposite. As they explained while I was there, a thrift store is by definition filled with items that were unwanted and usually donated. By contrast, the items in the Unclaimed Baggage Center were all so wanted that they were the specific few things that people paid good money to bring with them on an airplane.
Once you start looking through the clothes and the electronics you realize that this is all REALLY good stuff and not things that are hopelessly out of style or worn out. It may feel a bit odd to dig through the racks knowing that these items were all unvoluntarily separated from their owners. But it might make you feel better to know that almost all of them got a settlement from the airline, so they are really just things that the airlines bought and need to sell.
How cheap are these items? Pretty cheap, but not insanely cheap
This website mainly deals with the economics of travel, so this topic really interests me. I wasn't sure what to expect with the prices I'd find, and I'm pleased to report that they are low enough to make a visit worthwhile, but not so low that you can buy them in bulk and resell them for a profit. So it's a really fun place for finding personal bargains, but please don't think about starting your own business using this place as your supplier.
They donate or throw away about two thirds of the clothes they get, and they only sell (after a thorough cleaning) the best items that are new or almost new. Many of us take new clothes with us on vacations, so many items are obviously never worn. With that in mind, the prices are very good.
Here are some examples:
Shoes: $20 to $40
Dress shirts: $5 to $10
Jeans and slacks: $8 to $20
I didn't look at many prices in the women's department, but it was clear to me that these almost-new clothes were all priced at around 20% to 40% of what they'd be priced at in a typical store. Designer clothes in perfect condition are more expensive than non-designer clothes, but still far cheaper than in retail stores.
I'm not much of a clothes person so it was the electronics section that I was most interested in. Many of these items were actually left behind in seat pockets rather than in suitcases, so I was not surprised to see every model of iPad and Kindle in large numbers. Evidently they also sell some of these online because they get so many.
Prices on things like iPads were pretty much exactly ($100 to $200) what you'd find on eBay, which at first was a bit disappointing to me. However, it makes sense, and it's actually far better than eBay because you can touch and try everything and then no one has to pay a shipping charge. In other words, if you want to buy a gently used iPad or Kindle or something like that, this is an excellent option.
Perhaps even more interesting were the accessories. They have tubs of Apple power squares and Lightning to USB cables for $5 each, compared to $20 each in an Apple Store. Many of these things were still wrapped from the factory, so they are obviously new. I bought a few of these but regret not stocking up on more of them.
Fashionable clothes, name brand electronics, top books, and equipment
Again, it's hard to stress enough that this store LOOKS like a fancy thrift store at first, but everything in it is something that was lost rather than donated. When it comes to clothes the racks were full of designer items and high-quality clothing that is new or almost new. If you've shopped at a thrift store before you are used to seeing the WORST from people's wardrobes, and this store generally features the BEST from people's wardrobes.
With the electronics and other non-clothing items such as sunglasses or jewelry, it's similarly desirable gear that people paid to bring on a plane and vacation with them. There were even a few iPhones there, but evidently only a few because they go very fast when they get there. I asked about Apple Watches and they had none because they said that they are sold almost immediately when they come in. In other words, you might have to be a bit lucky to find certain things, but there will definitely be things that you want when you visit.
Unclaimed Baggage Center is a legit tourist attraction
One of the brilliant things about this whole place to me is that the owners have capitalized on the general fascination on this topic, and have turned the place into a popular tourist attraction for those going through northeast Alabama. They even have a little restaurant and snack bar with surprisingly good food at very good prices.
As mentioned above, they do a demonstration at 2:30pm each day to show the process of opening a new suitcase, and how they decide whether to donate or toss or clean and sell each item. They also hold events on a regular basis, where certain items might be 25% off the already-low prices. If you are a shopper and bargain hunter, you will definitely have a good time visiting the Unclaimed Baggage Center.
Unclaimed Baggage Center
509 W Willow St
Scottsboro, AL 35768
There are a couple fake unclaimed baggage centers nearby, including one right across the street. I didn't visit those, but I'm sure they are nothing like this one because this one has exclusive contracts with every US airline.