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Thrift Store Capitalizes on Airline Incompetence


Your lost bags are for sale. In Alabama.


Even though less than 1% of all bags are permanently lost by airlines, that still translates to more 400,000 pieces of luggage annually, according to a joint study by Wichita State and The University of Nebraska at Omaha.

The Wall Street Journal says the country's 3 biggest carriers -- United (UAL), American (AMR), and Delta (DAL) -- have the worst baggage-handling records over the past 10 years. The best? Continental (CAL), Southwest (LUV), and Alaska (ALK).

In any case, airline executives say things are improving. Checking a bag on Northwest (NWA)? That'll be $15, please - plus $25 for a second bag, and $100 for each additional one. This is why fewer pieces of luggage are being lost. Because with fewer dollars in their pockets, fewer people are checking their bags. And, like magic, the number of checked bags getting lost has gone down.

Everyone's looking for ways to save - no surprise there. As she told the Seattle Post Intelligencer, Maureen Nuse, a retired nurse, is a newly-minted thrift-shop devotee.

While shopping at a Seattle Goodwill store, she said, "I'm on a fixed income, but I'm used to dressing well. That's where the economy is hitting me."

The Salvation Army and Goodwill have seen year-to-date sales increases of nearly 15%. In a survey of more than 200 resale and thrift shops, almost 140 reported higher sales than they saw in 2007, with an average sales increase of 35%.

Well, it's a shame Nuse doesn't live in or around Scottsboro, Alabama. Because those 400,000 suitcases lost annually turn to gold after 90 days for bargain-hunters. If a bag's owner can't be located within 3 months, a company called the Unclaimed Baggage Center enters the picture.

Unclaimed Baggage has exclusive contracts with most major commercial airlines to buy unclaimed luggage, which they then resell in a 40,000 square-foot store covering more than a full city block. About 60% of the merchandise sold is clothing; the rest is what one would generally expect travelers would pack for a trip: cameras, electronics, sporting goods, jewelry, eyeglasses, books, and, well, luggage.

Not everything "reclaimed" by Unclaimed Baggage is offered for sale. In fact, a third of the items coming through are thrown away. The company says these include broken gifts, shirts with profane statements, and those that fall into the intriguing "unsanitary objects" category.

Some of the more interesting things found in unclaimed baggage by Unclaimed Baggage?

  • A guidance system for an F16 fighter jet.
  • A mummified falcon.
  • A shrunken head.
  • A full suit of armor.

Everyone's feeling the pinch, so it's no surprise that thrift stores are thriving while airlines struggle. Even some of today's biggest celebrities are finding new revenue streams.

Aerosmith, for example, played a Bat Mitzvah last year.

Just a thought: Next time the Toxic Twins swing through Alabama, it might not be a bad idea to have the tour bus swing by the Unclaimed Baggage Center.

Steve Owens, of the Chicago Tribune, reported discovering a nearly-new Fender Stratocaster among the racks for the bargain-basement price of $175.

No positions in stocks mentioned.
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