Rai & Rai Bathrooms: Signs of success

Starting a retail business always has its challenges, but this is even more true for deaf retailers. George Dean went to visit Rai & Rai Bathrooms, a business that highlights the strength of the deaf community through bathroom design.

Inclusive design has become a well-known topic in the KBB sector – but what about inclusive businesses? This is the case at Rai & Rai Bathrooms in Cambridgeshire, where six of the company’s nine members of staff are officially recognised as deaf.

Established by Rai Epners and his business partner, Raivis Tidemanis. The showroom was born out of Rai & Rai General Builders, a building company established back in 2019. 

Epners explains that when Rai & Rai General Builders first started, he had no plans to develop the business into the full bathroom showroom it is today. “Our aim wasn’t to expand at that time — it was just us doing what we wanted to do,” he said, “It was a bit of a hobby as well as a business, because we really enjoyed it.”

However, as members of the deaf community, Rai & Rai realised that through their expert knowledge of the building trade, they could turn their business into an accessible employer for other deaf individuals.

Rai & Rai Bathrooms, Cambridgeshire

Epners explains: “A few years in, we realised that there were a lot of deaf people who maybe weren’t in employment, or maybe were but they weren’t as successful as they could have been because there were communication barriers with hearing people. Some deaf people can feel really isolated in their jobs. We realised that there were lots of deaf people with amazing skills and talent, so we wanted to show that deaf people had the same skill as anybody else.”

Rai & Rai’s construction business became a welcoming space for those with hearing disabilities, where Epners says the team could communicate freely and directly with each other, without the same barriers as when working at less accessible businesses. 

As the business continued to grow, Rai & Rai decided to tailor its offering to bathrooms specifically. “At that time, Rai & Rai was taking on any kind of construction and design work — both outside and indoor projects — but after a few years, we narrowed that down to specialise in what we did best”, Epners says.

“While fitting bathrooms, our products were coming from different places, and that was tricky in terms of communication and what the final room would look like. We wanted to take everything on board ourselves so we were able to design, supply and fit in one team to make it more specialist.”

And so, Rai & Rai Bathrooms was born, with an opening in December of last year. Epners says that the launch was a massive success, and was attended by the Mayor of Whittlesey. She was apparently so charmed with the event that she posed in a bath of balloons.

Exceeding expectations

With its showroom staff and installers, how do the Rai & Rai team overcome the challenges of deafness when dealing with hearing clients?

Epners says that he and the team are incredibly grateful for the Access to Work scheme, a government fund that pays for British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters. He adds: “If we didn’t have that, it would be very challenging.”

One of the displays at the showroom, using Armera products.

The majority of the team at Rai & Rai are deaf, but anybody that needs one has access to a BSL interpreter as part of their work. When kbbreview paid a visit to the showroom, Ruth Goddenn, a BSL interpreter, helped facilitate the discussion between us and Rai Epners.

In addition to Goddenn in the showroom, the company has another interpreter who works mostly with the installation team on projects. The company’s sales director, Dan Allen, is fully hearing, but tells us that he’s in the process of learning BSL to better communicate with the rest of the staff.

“We’ve developed a fair bit of shorthand between us,” Allen says. “The rest of the team kind of understand what I need and vice versa, without me necessarily knowing the script, and we try and meet in the middle.”

In fact, Epners explains that with so many members of staff communicating through BSL, the team are able to share ideas with each other very quickly. However, does Epners think the industry is accessible enough as a deaf retailer?  

“I think Access to Work is solving that, and I think that the manufacturers and suppliers that we work with are all very open-minded and fantastic. Looking back to when we first set up on our own without interpreters, I didn’t know that we’d get here. Setting up a business is really, really hard for anyone, but setting up a business when you’re deaf? Come on, how much harder is that?

“I really wanted to show that deaf people can do something that’s just as wonderful. Actually, all it means is that we can’t hear, but we certainly have the skill to fit you a wonderful bathroom, and that’s what we wanted to show.”

Access to interpreters has made it accessible for us personally, but for deaf customers, the bathroom world is completely inaccessible.

Rai Epners, co-founder, Rai & Rai Bathrooms

Although he thinks the industry is accessible as a retailer, Epners believes it still has a way to go to properly support deaf consumers.

“Access to interpreters has made it accessible for us personally, but for deaf customers, the bathroom world is completely inaccessible. In other showrooms, you wouldn’t really be able to have anyone like what we have here. Deaf customers could certainly come here, but a lot of the deaf community aren’t necessarily close to where we’re based. We have installed bathrooms for deaf people, of course, but not as many as you’d think, because the distance is too much.”

Supplier synergy

In fact, the business’ focus for the foreseeable future is to work a little bit closer to home. “We used to go a little bit further out”, Epners says, “but now we’re trying to rein it in a little bit. We try and stick to within 30 or 40 miles.”

Already using its established client base from the days of Rai & Rai General Builders, the bathroom company also attracts new business from its prime spot on Whittlesey High Street.

The showroom’s façade immediately stands out from the surrounding shops thanks to its eye-catching window displays and bold purple branding. The colour theme continues within the showroom itself, from its monogrammed purple towels on display radiators, to purple LED keyboards at both of the showroom’s desks.

The showroom itself, at roughly 650 sq ft, is certainly not massive, but this hasn’t stopped it from comfortably fitting in an assortment of displays without feeling cluttered. Rai & Rai uses a range of suppliers, including Armera, Burlington and Drench for its bathroom products, and Ca’ Pietra, Architile, and Calypso for surfaces and tiles. A particular standout feature is the huge illuminated surface panel supplied by RAK Ceramics, carefully positioned behind a client meeting desk to foster a healthy dose of design inspiration.

Although some of its suppliers are big names in the bathroom sector, Goddenn explains that the company likes working with smaller suppliers, because it’s easy to build personable relationships with them.

She explains: “We’re just a small family-led company and we want to work with companies that have the same passion. With those suppliers, we can phone them up and give them an idea of a look we’re trying to achieve, and they do everything they can to help us out. We really appreciate that kind of enthusiasm.”

Problem solving

On the topic of enthusiasm, Epners explains that a passion for problem solving has driven him throughout his career. “The challenge of design, and more specifically, the challenge of making it look beautiful is what attracts me to this job so much”, he says.

The Mayor of Whittlesey making a splash at the showroom’s opening.

“Looking just at tiles for example, there’s thousands and thousands to choose from, and that’s a challenge in itself. With bathrooms, it’s not the same as just painting and decorating a room — we’re talking about plumbing, water, and the challenge of making it all work together as well as it can. It’s hard work, but it’s very satisfying.”

Now that the business is successfully off the ground, the future is looking bright. With a full order book until the end of the year, one of the company’s immediate goals is to take on more installers to keep up with the overwhelming demand.

Looking at Rai & Rai’s projects, they’ve proved that they can design beautiful bathroom spaces, but the business is also on a mission to prove that the deaf community isn’t as limited as some people assume. 

Godden candidly admits: “Rai will say that things aren’t made harder for us, but it sometimes takes extra time because of having to translate things back and forth. It can be a challenge sometimes, but because we don’t stop very often and think about how and what we do, when we pause, we realize that it’s actually amazing.”

Asked what his message to the wider KBB industry is, Epners concludes: “It would be wonderful if the world could see that deaf people can do anything, and that we’re completely equal. That’s our passion, and that’s really where we lead from.”

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