Chances are if your luggage is forever lost in the US, it ends up in a tiny town in northeast Alabama. Once airlines do their due diligence to reunite bags with their owners, if they simply cannot find a bag's owner, they sell them to the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, AL. There they appraise the contents and put the items on sale at a discount in a 40,000 square foot store.
Visiting a friend in Chattanooga, Tennessee, we decided to be spontaneous and check it out. It is about an hour's drive from Chattanooga. The nearest major cities are Atlanta and Nashville, both about 2.5 hours’ drive. Although no interstates lead directly to Scottsboro, the four-lane highways make for an easy trip.
We saw cars as far away as Pennsylvania and Maryland (both more than 10 hours’ drive away). I imagine they were snowbirds headed to winter in Florida, stopping in on their migration south.
Diamonds, Gold, Silver, and more
We were both mostly interested in jewelry, so that's where we headed first. Lisa, manning the counter, was very excited to welcome us. Three weeks on the job, she was full of details about luxury items for sale. The weirdest thing she'd seen so far were men's size 12, knee-high sneakers covered in gold spikes over pink leopard print. They sold the previous day for $300.
One of the most expensive items sold recently was a Rolex Platinum President watch for $35,000. Depending on the exact details of the watch, retail is around $45,000 up to $115,000. The most expensive item ever sold was an emerald for $43,000. The highest priced item we saw was a diamond encrusted 18K gold bracelet for almost $22,000. Who leaves these things in luggage and then loses it??
A bit of everything
We saw several up-scale brands, typical shopping mall brands, down to those found at Target. A lot of Tory Burch, Burberry, Michael Kors, North Face, Patagonia, Calvin Klein with Jimmy Choo, Prada, Gucci sprinkled in.
The weirdest thing I saw were the racks of women's thongs, panties, and lingerie; including a pair of giant underpants. I'm a bit squeamish of buying used clothes, but I'm certain I wouldn't buy used undergarments!
There were plenty of other surprising finds, including a display case of firearms. An accordion alongside a wall full of violins, mandolins and guitars. We went in November, thus there was an impressive collection of ski gear available. As you would imagine, plenty of iPads, iPods, eReaders and laptops/Macs. Things generally ran around 50% off retail based on what I saw.
The Faithful Regulars
After wandering around for a couple hours, we needed a break in the on-site café, Cups. I chatted up a lady texting pictures of costume jewelry to her mom for advice. Cathea lives in Atlanta, making the trip almost monthly. Her favorite find was a Breitling watch for $1200 (average retail around $3000). I mentioned the Rolex only to find out she knows the guy who bought it. She introduced him to the store. He now makes monthly trips from DC, specifically to visit the store.
There are some regulars that have thriving re-sale businesses on eBay selling the high-end items they find. Cathea mentioned a gentleman named Vern who is apparently the unofficial guru of the Unclaimed Baggage Center. She sees him every time she comes, but we didn't happen to run into him to learn his secrets to finding the good stuff. If you go, let me know if you run into Vern!
Did I Catch the Fever?
I can definitely understand the lure, but I didn’t get addicted. We did buy a few things, including a Chan Luu bracelet for $60, saving about $40 off retail.
For the uninitiated, it's overwhelming and easy to get lost in the organized chaos. To re-create a similar experience without making the pilgrimage, I would go on a bargain shopping crawl in your own town. You probably won't score a Rolex, but finding brag-worthy brands on clearance at TJ Maxx is just as thrilling and you didn't have to go to a tiny town in Alabama to claim it!
Have you been to the Unclaimed Baggage Center? What did you find?