Treasure Trove

 

unclaimed

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The Unclaimed Baggage Center lures fashionistas, bargain hunters and the curious from around the  world.

story by ANITA STIEFEL | photos by RANDY GRIDER

The old adage “finders keepers” is certainly the case at the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Ala., where shopping enthusiasts from around the world come searching for deals.

The unusual shopping center is one of the state’s leading tourism destinations, second only to the Alabama Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville. Approximately 1 million people visit annually – and for good reason. It offers an experience you can’t find anywhere else in the United States.

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]“We’re the only store in America that buys and resells lost and unclaimed baggage from the airline industry,” explains Brenda Cantrell, UBC’s director of retail sales and marketing. “We also deal with ground transportation – train, bus and rental-car companies – and we have brand new items that come in as unclaimed cargo, things lost in business-to-business shipments.

“People lose things and leave stuff behind. Lost and found is a fact of life,” she adds.
Despite the stereotype, domestic airlines deliver 99.5 percent of checked luggage to passengers Ala., finds the perfect hat; Cups Cafe offers shoppers a place at the baggage carou- to grab a quick meal and relax; UBC is divided into depart-
sel. That’s an amazing statistic considering the number of passengers and millions of miles flown each year. Of the remaining 0.5 percent of checked bags that are “lost,” 95 percent are reunited with their owners within five days. An intense, 3-month search process further reunites more than half of the remaining bags with their owners. The airlines pay monetary claims to the small fraction of a percent of owners whose bags are never identified.

Eventually, those hopelessly lost bags end up at the UBC by the truckload, sight unseen. Items go through a complex sorting process – new and like-new items go to the UBC sales floor, while remaining items are donated to numerous charity partners, who repurpose merchandise to meet needs all over the world.

Clothing headed for the store’s shelves goes to UBC’s in-house dry-cleaning and laundry facility – the largest commercial dry cleaner in Alabama. Fine jewelry is cleaned and appraised. Technicians test all electronic equipment, erasing any personal data and ensuring it works properly. Experts research and price each item – significantly below market price in most cases, according to Cantrell.

“We sell the items at 20 to 80 percent off retail, with prices based on quality and condition,” she explains. “I like to think of it this way – we have good deals, great deals and fantastic deals.” Examples?

“In 1998, we sold a 5.8-karat diamond ring appraised at $40,000 for $23,000, and that was our record holder for many years,” Cantrell says. “Last spring, we sold our most expensive item in company history, a $63,000 Rolex watch, for $30,000.”

But you don’t have to be a high roller to enjoy UBC’s mystique. There’s something for almost every taste and budget in the vast, 40,000-square-foot complex.

In addition to the common items like clothes and shoes that people take with them when they travel, UBC has a large collection of electronic devices – from electric razors and curling irons to cameras and laptop computers. The store has all kinds of sporting goods, from golf clubs and backpacks to skis and surfboards. There are separate departments for men, women, children, jewelry, hats, sunglasses, designer handbags, artwork, hardware and miscellaneous household items. You will find a massive collection of paperback books, a huge selection of umbrellas, and, of course, lots of suitcases.

“We see a lot of tourist items that people pick up at travel destinations, such as international cloth- helps Heath Frazier of Lebanon, Tenn., with the UBC Baggage Experi- until I hurt my back,” she says. “You have to come often because it’s always different. I have dors,” Cantrell says. “Aside from all the T-shirts and hats, we see coffee mugs, shot glasses, refrigerator
magnets and all kinds of trinkets from around the world.”

When asked about the most unusual items, Cantrell readily rattles off an impressive sampling of the bizarre. “We’ve had multiple full suits of armor, a Penny Brown of Locust Grove, Ga., made a special trip to Scottsboro
live rattlesnake, a 6-foot-long fiberglass mold for a shark, an Egyptian mummified head, an adult-size commercial chicken costume… there are just too many to name,” she says. “Some of the things, we call them ‘found treasures’ and we rotate them on displays throughout the store.”

On any given day, the parking lot will be full of tour buses and cars from across the country. On this particular day, there are license plates from Texas, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia.

“Every year we have visitors from just about every state and 40 to 50 foreign countries,” Cantrell says. “What makes us different – besides our unique product – is our amazing customer service and Southern hospitality. We want our guests to feel like family.”

UBC features a café and coffee shop for the convenience of shoppers, because many visitors literally spend hours browsing through thousands of items. You can sign up to participate in the UBC Baggage Experience, where you don protective gloves and open up a bag straight off the truck to understand the decision-making process that goes into sorting items.

UBC caters to tourists, offering direct-to-home shipping if you can’t fit your items in your vehicle or don’t want to bring them along on vacation. For those traveling with pets, UBC has partnered with a nearby facility to provide short-term boarding care at a nominal fee, available by calling ahead at 256-259-1000 or 256-609-7196.

While shoppers enjoy a diverse array of merchandise, turnover is rapid.

“If you see something you like, you better put it in your cart, because when you come back it’ll be gone,” Cantrell advises. “Not much sticks around for long. We put out around 7,000 new items every day.”

Doris Hill of nearby Skyline, Ala., shops weekly at UBC. “I used to come every day until I hurt my back,” she says. “You have to come often because it’s always different. I have found some really good deals here. I once found a designer dress worth hundreds that I paid $6 for, and today I found a pair of shoes worth $80 for $11. If they’re used, you sure can’t tell it.”

Penny Brown of Locust Grove, Ga., made a special trip to Scottsboro to take her mother to the Unclaimed Baggage Center. “She wanted to come, so my sister and I brought her on a day trip,” Brown says. “We have some neighbors who came here and kept telling us about it. I wish it was closer to my house so I could come every day!”

Kim Conwill of Belmont, Miss., says her family has always been curious about the store, and on this particular day decided to stop and check it out.

“We’re just passing through – this is my first time in here,” she explains. “We’ve seen the signs on our way to Gatlinburg every time we come through here, and we’ve talked about stopping, but this is the first time we actually took the time to do it.”

If her jam-packed shopping cart is any indication, Conwill is pleased with the decision to stop. “There’s a lot of stuff in here, and you can get good deals if you go through it. I found a really nice dress to wear to my niece’s wedding next weekend, so I’d call that a success.”

Angela Jones of Crestview, Fla., was camping at nearby Lake Guntersville when someone told her visiting UBC would be worth the drive.“She was right,” Jones says. “I found a Michael Kors silk top for $3 and a Coach purse for $80. I found an iPod for my youngest son and an iPad for my oldest, so I’ve got my Christmas shopping out of the way early. A trip here is going to be on the agenda every time I’m in the area from now on.”

The Unclaimed Baggage Center is located at 509 West Willow Street, Scottsboro, AL 35768. Hours are Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m., and Saturday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. For more information, visit unclaimedbaggage.com or call 256-259-1525.

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