Unclaimed Baggage Center turns 50 and hits the road

One day in 1970, an insurance salesman in Scottsboro, Ala., named Doyle Owens encountered a friend who worked for a bus company. The friend told Owens that the company had a collection of unclaimed baggage; nobody knew what was in these orphan suitcases, and nobody much cared. The company was willing to sell it to anybody who would come haul it away.

So one of the more unusual — and successful — ideas in American retail was born. Armed with his idea, $300 in borrowed money and a 1965 Chevrolet pickup, Owens bought a truckload of unclaimed baggage. Then he and his wife set up tables and sold what was in the unclaimed bags. All of it, the first day. Encouraged by his success, he bought more unclaimed baggage, expanding from bus companies to the airlines.

Fifty years later, Unclaimed Baggage Center — still right there in Scottsboro, population about 15,000 — is an international shopping destination that attracts nearly 1 million visitors a year. “They come from all 50 states and multiple foreign countries,” says Brenda Cantrell, who holds the title of brand ambassador for the company. “Our biggest shopping day of the year is our annual ski sale event, which is always on the first Saturday of November,” she says. “On that one single day last year, we had cards from 39 states go through our POS system.”

Little girl reaching for books on a shelf at Unclaimed Baggage Center

Unclaimed Baggage is a privately held company that doesn’t publish sales figures, but by any measure it’s a big operation. The store itself has recently expanded from 40,000 square feet to 50,000, and a few thousand more will be added over the next couple of months. There are, at the moment, 184 employees, only about half of whom work in the store; the other half run the operations department.

When a suitcase gets lost in transit, the airlines conduct a 90-day tracing process, during which they try to reunite it with its owner. Most of the time, they’re successful; according to airline information technology company SITA's 2018 annual baggage report, fewer than three bags per 1,000 passengers were mishandled in 2017. Unclaimed Baggage buys the truly lost ones and arranges for them to be sent to Scottsboro.

This tells you three things about the merchandise at Unclaimed Baggage. One is that until they get the bags open, nobody knows what it is. The second is that whatever it is, it’s been sitting in a warehouse for three months, and probably sitting out on a trailer. The third is that, given what people pack to go on a trip, a lot of it’s going to be clothing.

“We don’t know if they were on their way to a destination or on their way back,” Cantrell says, “but we’re not going to take any chances.” The first thing they do is wash everything washable. “In terms of volume,” says Cantrell, “we’re one of the largest cleaners in the state. We do about 50,000 pieces of laundry a month.”

Reclaimed for good

Once it’s been cleaned and otherwise rendered safe to handle, incoming merchandise is sorted — clothes, electronics, accessories, books, eyeglasses, whatever — and checked for salability. If it’s, say, a camera or a computer, does it work? How much should it sell for? The operations department makes these decisions and then feeds the result into the store.

But not all of it; a substantial portion of what comes in is too worn to be sellable. Through partnerships with a number of charities, Unclaimed Baggage is able to “reclaim for good” more than half of these otherwise unusable items. Over the years, these charities have received millions of dollars’ worth of unsellable clothes, medical supplies and equipment.

Child painting a suitcase from Unclaimed Baggage

In addition, Cantrell says the company has supplied hundreds of thousands of people with eyeglasses and helped rebuild thousands of damaged wheelchairs for disabled children. A sub-initiative of Reclaimed for Good called Love Luggage provides personalized suitcases — painted by children themselves — for local foster children to replace the garbage bags many typically use to transport their belongings.

Bryan Owens, son of founder Doyle Owens, is the owner and CEO of Unclaimed Baggage. The company is steered by an executive committee of about 10 people, headed by Owens, President Mike Elkins and Brand Ambassador Cantrell — who is a perfect example of the culture and growth pattern of the improbable enterprise. In June of 1998, she was working on a marketing degree at the Huntsville campus of the University of Alabama and decided to do a research paper on Unclaimed Baggage.

“A year or two earlier,” Cantrell says, “Oprah Winfrey’s production company called and said they wanted to do a story on the company. They sent down her personal shopper and interviewed some people in the parking lot, and the floodgates opened. I was doing my research paper on this store that was just transforming itself in front of my eyes.”

She was also falling in love with the company. “I interviewed the director of business development on a Saturday morning, and by that afternoon I knew this was where I wanted to work.” Cantrell didn’t know much about retail, but she talked her way into a foot-in-the-door job answering the phones; 22 years later she’s still there, basically being the external face of the company. “I tell people, don’t write off small towns because you don’t think opportunities are there. There are opportunities behind doors you didn’t know existed.”

The 50/50 tour

To celebrate its 50th anniversary, Unclaimed Baggage will do a tour of all 50 states, beginning with a kickoff event at the store in Scottsboro March 20 and 21. From there a caravan — complete with a replica of Doyle Owens’ 1965 Chevy pickup — will head off, stopping in New York and the Today show, at the Atlanta Dogwood Festival and Bonnaroo in Nashville; from there it gets a bit freeform, ending with a final event back in Scottsboro on December 12. Dedicated fans can track the road trip’s progress by following #50years50states or checking unclaimedbaggage.com, where — later in the spring — they will find a revamped website and the company’s maiden voyage into ecommerce.

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