On Jan. 3, Allison Burson says, she carefully wrapped plastic around her rolled-up wedding dress and slipped it into a nylon bag for dry cleaning pickup later that day at her home in Wellesley.
Two weeks later, concerned that her dress hadn’t been returned within the time promised, Burson called Holly Cleaners, a family-owned business for more than 60 years, with outlets in Newton, Needham, and Wellesley.
Burson said she expected to be told that her treasured dress would soon be delivered. Instead, she said, a Holly Cleaners employee put her on hold, then came back and said, “We’ll look into it and get back to you.”
That sounded like there was a problem, Burson said. And there was: a couple of days later, Burson would be told her dress could not be found.
Somehow, it had vanished.
But who was responsible? Holly Cleaners or Burson?
Burson paid $2,000 for the dress for her 2013 wedding. She picked burgundy red because it’s her favorite color and she wanted to wear it on special occasions after her big day, as she did at a cousin’s wedding last New Year’s Eve.
Now she wants to be fully reimbursed for the cost of the dress. But Holly Cleaners says the bag it picked up did not have the dress inside. The owners of the business shared with me a 21-second video from a security camera at its cleaning facility that they say proves the dress was not in the bag.
I am not so sure.
Burson said that Holly Cleaners called her back on Jan. 21, saying it had confirmed from its driver that the bag was picked up on Jan. 3. Then she was asked, "Are you sure the dress was in the bag?”
Burson, 35, a program director for a local foundation, was sure it was, but she dashed upstairs anyhow to double-check her closet. No dress.
But the red sash that she said she removed before putting it in the bag and the satin hanger were still there.
“OK, we’ll get back to you,” the employee said.
But no call came, prompting Burson to call three days later. This time, an employee asked, “Was there anything else in the bag?”
“Yes," she said, some hangers and loose pieces of plastic for recycling.
“We don’t know what happened," the employee finally said. "We’re stumped.”
The employee said that giving Burson a store credit might be possible to put the matter to rest. But Burson declined, saying she wanted full, cash reimbursement for her dress and she had the original receipt, which she provided to the cleaners and me.
Four days later, on Jan. 28, Burson called the cleaners again. This time, an employee offered new information: the driver of the delivery truck had been questioned and reported that the bag he picked up "wasn’t in the usual place.”
The usual place was hanging off the front doorknob of her home on Seaver Street, a well-traveled street near Wellesley High School.
“The bag was off the steps, on the ground,” the employee said.
Furthermore, the employee said, a video camera that records employees as they open bags and sort the contents showed “the dress wasn’t in the bag.”
Burson told me she was highly skeptical. “If that’s so, why didn’t you call me as soon as you realized it was empty?” she asked.
I was later told by the cleaners that it’s not unusual for customers to return recyclables alone in a pickup bag.
This time, Burson was offered a $500 store credit.
Burson said she believed Holly Cleaners was implying that her dress had been stolen from her front door. So she contacted Wellesley police, who told her it didn’t sound like a theft. I called a police official who checked town files going back two years without finding any reports of dry cleaning bags being tampered with.
A day after the store credit offer, Burson said, she got a call from a manager who upped the settlement offer to $500 cash. An online depreciation calculator for wedding gowns I looked up pegged the value of a 7-year-old dress at 50 percent, about $1,000.
Not satisfied, Burson asked to see the owner, but a manager instead promised to further investigate.
On Feb. 3, the manager told Burson the company was withdrawing its previous offers to settle. “We’ve reviewed the video and there was no dress," she said. “We’re not responsible.”
I met with Jeff and Susan Davidson, owners of Holly Cleaners. I reviewed with them Burson’s basic account, which they didn’t dispute. They did, however, emphasize that their offers to settle should not be construed as an admission of responsibility.
“We extended an olive branch to her,” said Jeff Davidson, who added that he felt bad for Burson’s loss and considered her sincere — but mistaken — about her dress being in the bag when it was picked up.
The Davidsons said the video is indisputable proof they are right. But I have watched it a dozen times. It shows an employee picking up a bag and turning away from the camera to empty it. But you really can’t see what came out of the the bag because the employee is in the way. When the employee turns back, you see something on the floor where the bag had been dumped — but what? To me, it’s inconclusive. (The Davidsons declined permission to post the video with this column.)
They said Burson could have included a written inventory of items in the bag to positively document its content. Inventories are not required but there’s a form on the Holly Cleaners website that can be downloaded, printed, filled out, and tucked into the bag.
The Davidsons also said the fact that Burson doubled-checked her closet and contacted police about a possible theft implied “she is not 100 percent sure she gave us [the dress] in the first place.” But I think their logic in this regard is questionable.
If your business includes taking possession of other people’s property, I think the burden is on you to adequately document the property you take at every step, and to give immediate notice if something appears awry. Bags picked up at doorsteps that may appear empty should be checked.
I think Holly Cleaners and Burson should quickly come to terms, with the depreciated value of the dress a reasonable compromise.