Unpacking Sales: An Interview with Bryan Owens, Mike Elkins and Brenda Cantrell of Unclaimed Baggage Center

Mike Elkins, Bryan Owens and Brenda Cantrell of Unclaimed Baggage Center

Looking for a shopping day trip that is uniquely Alabama?

Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro stakes its reputation on being just the place you want on your summer shopping itinerary.

“It is fun to just get in your car and go. We have lots of day trippers, especially on the weekends and in the summer,” said Brenda Cantrell, Unclaimed Baggage’s brand ambassador.

A Vogue magazine editor’s quote emblazoned on the wall leading to the fitting rooms captures the customers’ shopping-as-a-mission spirit: “A posse of style vixens on a road trip à la Thelma and Louise could have a high old time at Unclaimed Baggage Center.”

The attraction becomes clearer once you know luggage isn’t the only item sold. Unclaimed Baggage Center (UBC) is the only retailer in the world where the merchandise being unpacked on any given day could include a stuffed goose, moose antlers, vacuum-packed frogs or a $46,000 presidential platinum Rolex watch along with a mountain of clothes and choice electronics.

The merchandise emanates from just a fraction of the luggage orphaned on planes, buses, trains, trucks and other transportation venues.

Not everything unpacked is sold. One-third is donated, one-third is thrown away and only the remaining third makes its way onto the sales floor or to be displayed as a “found treasure.”

From 5,000 to 7,000 items get stocked daily in the sprawling retail complex, where all told more than one million items pass through annually, including cameras, sporting goods, jewelry, books and, of course, luggage.

“We have people who come in and shop every day,” said Brenda, who when walking through the store calls those customers by name. “It is an addiction for them.”

“Alabama is our home, and we are proud to bring almost a million guests to Scottsboro every year.” ” – BRYAN

The late Doyle and Sue Owens started Unclaimed Baggage Center in 1970. The business operates on a 100-year vision, said their son, Bryan, who bought the family business in 1995.

Destination Location

Shoppers from all over the world also come to Scottsboro, a town of close to 15,000 in Jackson County, for a once-in-alifetime shopping experience.

“The national traveler or international traveler who has heard about us at some point in their life has to mark it off their bucket list to make it to Scottsboro and check us out,” Brenda adds.

Patti Culp, executive director of the Alabama Travel Council, knows the value of the almost one million visitors each year to UBC. “Unclaimed Baggage Center put Alabama, Scottsboro and Jackson County on the map!,” she attests.

The 2016 Alabama Retailer of the Year judges agreed Unclaimed Baggage Center “is a destination location.” Last year’s judges chose UBC as the Gold Alabama Retailer of the Year in the Annual Sales $5 Million to $20 Million category.

Family Legacy

Bryan Owens, chief executive officer

The late Doyle and Sue Owens started the company in 1970 using a borrowed pick-up truck and a $300 loan. By 1978, they had incorporated as OCS Inc., doing business as Unclaimed Baggage Center. Their son, Bryan, bought the family business in 1995 and directed its expansion.

“My parents set a wonderful example in their work ethic,” Bryan Owens said. “I expanded upon the remarkable foundation laid by my parents by focusing on the mystery of ‘you never know what you’ll find,’ providing meaningful employment for our team members and expressing genuine Southern hospitality to our guests.”

And the plan is to keep on keeping on.

“We have a 100-year vision for Unclaimed Baggage and that always influences how we run our business. If God allows, we would like to continue our 47-year history of growth,” Bryan said. “My wife, Sharon, and I have three boys who have a deep fondness and gratefulness for UBC. They participate in every board meeting and are mentored by some of the best business people in the South.”

‘Reclaim for Good’

“My parents taught me the importance of giving and generosity, when times are good and even when times are tough,” said Bryan.

So, it is no surprise that Unclaimed Baggage Center’s mission isn’t limited to selling. Giving back is foundational to the company through product and financial donations as well as volunteerism.

“They bring a lot of sales tax dollars and a lot of visitors to the community, but they also give back,” said Rick Roden, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Jackson County Chamber of Commerce. “They are great volunteers. They are great givers to the community.”

Bryan explains, “It is our mission to ‘reclaim for good’ what was once unclaimed.” Reclaimed for Good™ is what the company calls its giving program, which Bryan said will continue to expand.

Each year, Unclaimed Baggage Center donates tens of thousands of eyeglasses to Lions Club International, medical supplies to overseas medical mission trips, linens and household items to The Salvation Army, hand-painted suitcases to children moving to new foster homes, clothing to the underprivileged and much more.

Employee Investors

MEMBER SINCE 2016: Unclaimed Baggage Center at 509 W. Willow St. in Scottsboro is open 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday and 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturdays. Visit online at unclaimedbaggage.com

In addition to connecting with community, UBC connects with its employees.

“We believe that a place you love to work is a place you love to shop,” said Mike Elkins, Unclaimed Baggage’s president since 2013.

“Our team is developed, trained, challenged and rewarded for a successful day,” he added. Chief Executive Officer Bryan says, “We are always looking for ways to build upon our culture of serving our guests, team members and business partners.”

Elkins said the company focuses on the drive home for both its team members and customers.

The goal is a smile on the faces of employees and customers alike when they leave the store.

“We believe the moment you get in your car is the moment we should own. When you get in your car, at that moment, that’s when you decide if you are going to come back, or if you are going to tell a friend.”

THE ESSENTIALS

Founded: 1970

Number of Employees: 162

Mentor: Jerry White, director of the Caruth Institute for Entrepreneurship, Cox School of Business, Southern Methodist University

Smart Move: Convincing my wife, Sharon, to marry me!

Learning Moment: Realizing that everything we have comes from God above. We are stewards of what we’ve been entrusted with and that we do our work for an audience of ONE.

Story by Nancy King Dennis
Photos by Brandon Robbins

This article is the cover story of the July 2017 Alabama Retailer.