- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 17, 2001

Frequent fliers who wonder where some of their long-lost luggage ended up need wonder no more. Chances are it landed at the Unclaimed Baggage Center (UBC) in Scottsboro, Ala., one of the state's biggest tourist attractions and a microcosm of American culture.
Wedding gowns, wedding bands, emerald rings, skis and high-end designer glasses are just some of the 7,000 new items that arrive at this rural northeastern Alabama store every day. On any given day, bargain hunters are happily pawing their way through piles of items from the unlucky passengers who fall into the two-tenths of 1 percent of airline customers whose luggage is permanently misplaced.
UBC, which purchases "unclaimed" luggage from airlines and sells the goods at a discount, has its main store occupying an entire city block in Scottsboro, population 15,000. A branch store is in Boaz, Ala., another rural Southern town. They are the only stores of their kind.
The Scottsboro store includes a clock tower displaying the times in London, Paris and Tokyo, among other cities, and an in-house coffee shop selling the only Starbucks coffee in this small town. A Web site, www.unclaimedbaggage.com, sells a limited number of items online and also provides travel tips so customers can prevent their luggage from sharing the fate of the store's merchandise.
About 60 percent of the merchandise is clothing, but the store also sells books, furniture, sporting goods and jewelry, including wedding bands. Store merchandise comes from unclaimed luggage and cargo purchased from airlines after a thorough attempt has been made to reunite misplaced items with their rightful owners. This process can take at least 90 days. It takes 100 days or more before the bags are sold to the UBC.
UBC, which is privately owned, does not say which airlines it purchases from and for how much, but US Airways and Southwest both acknowledge selling to UBC. Neither will say how much, if any, profit the airlines make.
One billion airline passengers check approximately two billion bags each year, UBC says, and of these two billion bags, five of every 1,000 are mishandled initially. Ninety-eight percent of these bags are reunited with their owners within five days. The remaining two-tenths of 1 percent of checked bags still translates into hundreds of thousands of bags a year. UBC estimates more than one million items move through the store a year.
Once the bags arrive at the UBC, the staff pops the locks, then begins sorting and appraising the contents. Outside appraisers are commissioned to estimate the cost of high-end jewelry, which sells for 50 percent of the appraised value. Clothes and other items are sold at 50 percent to 80 percent off the manufacturer's suggested retail price. Clothes are laundered at an in-house dry-cleaning facility.
The store was founded in 1970 by Doyle Owens, a Scottsboro native. In 1995, he sold it to his son, UBC President and CEO Bryan Owens. All sorts of treasures have surface over the years, including a bag filled with Egyptian artifacts, a violin made in 1770 and Versace dresses straight from the runway. The artifacts were auctioned at Christie's in New York, the violin was preserved for UBC's small museum and the dresses were sold both in the store and online.
Two weeks ago, the store had for sale a 40.95-carat emerald for $29,500, a "Chinese Persian" rug selling for $3,000, and an unusual traditional garment identified as "hand-embroidered" and "very old" for $2,500.
Bargains abound. Years ago, a young buyer bought a $60 painting at UBC and the longer she examined her purchase, the more familiar it looked. She called her mother with the name of the painter, who confirmed it was a well-known artist who at the time had an exhibit at the Mexico City Museum of Art. The piece was worth $20,000.
Once, an Atlanta man purchased a set of skis for his wife for $45. She noticed they felt strangely familiar. Lifting up the tongue of the boot, she saw her maiden name. She had lost the skis while traveling a few years before.
UBC stresses that the chances of a similar situation recurring are very slim due to the sheer number of items it processes daily. Passengers whose baggage has been lost receive a settlement of up to $2,500 from the airlines and once the luggage is sold to UBC, it becomes store property.
Occasionally, the store receives inquiries about availability of particular items, although not necessarily from an individual looking to reclaim a favored lost possession. The UBC is usually unable to process such a request owing to the sheer volume of merchandise.
Although UBC has a concierge's desk with a guest book that boasts visitors from all over the United States and the world, the store also has built up a number of local regulars. Many of them drive 30 to 45 minutes on a regular basis to check on newly arriving merchandise. Others come daily. Some 800,000 visitors drop by each year.
Pamela Collis of Rainesville, Ala., who shops with her daughter-in-law, Adrianne Blackwell of Ft. Payne, Ala., is a store regular. With a shopping cart full of clothes, she excitedly coos over the bargains that she finds: a $5 skirt here, Liz Claiborne pants there.
"You really can't compare this store to T.J. Maxx" and other discount stores, she says. "I'm sorry, but you're going to find stuff from all over the world [here]."
And the employees share in the customers' delight.
"Let's just say that I don't take much of my check home," 17-year employee Barbara Jones says. "My husband has teased me that it costs him for me to work."
Such temptation makes Mrs. Jones support the store's policy that an item must be on the floor for three days before an employee may be allowed to purchase it. However, several high-end items, name-brand jewelry such as Tiffany & Co. and Cartier products for example, often sell in a day.
"But if it [the store policy] were not so, we would never have a penny of money," Mrs. Jones says. "It gives you a little chance to cool off, when you see something and say 'I've got to have that.'"

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