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Delta variant is derailing back-to-school shopping for parents and retailers

Global shipping delays and uncertainty around the delta variant have created trepidation among back-to-school shoppers.

Back-to-school shoppers — and retailers — are loading up on supplies with a mix of anxiety and enthusiasm this year, as the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus looms over what was expected to be a year of in-person schooling.

About half of back-to-work shoppers are planning to make their usual purchases, despite the spread of the delta variant, showing that many of them are "optimistic about a more normal return to school in the fall,” said Sarah Hughes, product marketing lead at tech and data analytics firm Inmar Intelligence, in an email to NBC News.

But the surge in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations across the country has also stoked fears that this year will be a repeat of last year when students did the majority of schooling at home.

Schools across the country are making last-minute decisions to return to virtual learning, while others are scrapping digital learning options entirely. Meanwhile, debates over mask mandates in schools have continued. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all students and staff wear masks in school. But eight states have barred schools from doing so, while 10 other states have statewide mask mandates in place.

Families with children in grades K through 12 are planning to spend an average of $850 on back-to-school shopping this year, or about $60 more than last year, Katherine Cullen, senior director for industry and consumer insights at the National Retail Federation, a trade group, told NBC News. That amounts to a total of $37 billion in spending this year, which is a $3 billion increase from last year.

“A lot of that is being driven by the fact that families are expecting school to take place in person this year,” she said. “So kids need backpacks, lunchboxes, new electronics, and a host of other items as they get ready for in person classes this fall.”

As demand for goods accelerates along with the return to school, supply chains have also been squeezed. The virus has devastated parts of Asia that manufacture apparel and electronics, and U.S. ports remain backed up. S&P Global Market Intelligence's global trade database, Panjiva, found that imports of back-to-school products this year have recovered from their 2020 levels but are still “well below” 2019 levels. U.S. imports of kids' shoes and apparel increased by about 64 percent year over year in the second quarter of 2021 but are still roughly 13 percent below the same period of 2019.

“Unfortunately, the supply chain disruptions and port congestion we’ve seen this year are impacting inventory availability,” Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain and customs policy with the NRF, said in a statement Tuesday. “Many expect these issues to continue well into 2022, potentially impacting peak-season shipments.”

Uncertainty around the delta variant has created trepidation among back-to-school shoppers, said Camilo Lyon, a lifestyle brands and wellness analyst with global financial services firm BTIG.

“Where there had been a more robust level of spending on apparel categories geared towards going out, there has been a little bit of a slowdown in recent weeks across various retail channels,” he said.

A July survey of Bed Bath & Beyond shoppers found 72 percent of people had done less than 50 percent of their back-to-college shopping. About one-third of those shoppers were waiting for the best deals, and one-quarter of them said they weren’t sure what they would need for the school year, according to the survey.

Patrik Frisk, CEO of Under Armor, told investors in an earnings call last week that he is hopeful for a more normalized back-to-school season as kids get back into recreational sports and return to in-person schooling.

“People really have to get out there to get stuff,” he said. “Does that mean [a resurgence] is not going to come? I don't know. I think your guess is as good as mine.”

For some people, back-to-school shopping began months in advance. On Amazon’s Prime Day in June, Prime members purchased more than 600,000 backpacks, 1 million laptops, 1 million headphones, 240,000 notebooks, 40,000 calculators, and 220,000 Crayola products, said Lauren Englund, a spokesperson for Amazon, in an emailed statement.

Valier Barricklow, a mom based inTexas, told NBC News she began back-to-school shopping online in January to catch better deals for her daughter, who is beginning her second year at Texas State University in-person this year. She spent her freshman year doing virtual schooling.

“I wanted to make sure that at least on our end, we were ready to go,” she said.

She was told to be prepared to spend anywhere between $900 and $1,000 to outfit her daughter’s dorm year. But because she took advantage of winter sales, she spent about $750.

“Generally speaking, things sell out pretty rapidly,” she said. “So if you have not started shopping for your kids back to school, you need to get on it, like, stat.”

Retailers are betting that shoppers will be spending more to update wardrobes and supplies after a year indoors. Brian Lynch, president of Carter’s, told investors in an earnings call in July, that its back-to-school business was off to a strong start over the summer.

“It’s a wardrobe replacement for the kids,” he said. “Basic tees, shorts, denim, uniforms — those businesses are very strong out of the gate.”

Overstock President David Nielsen told investors in July that the company is prepped for “pent-up demand” for back-to-school season, particularly among college students looking for new bedding and room decor. Tilly’s CEO Edmond Thomas said in June that backpack and denim sales in the three months ending in May increased by nearly $5 million compared to the same time in 2019. Vans CEO Stephen Rendle told investors in an earnings call in July that the company is so bullish on this year’s back-to-school season it is raising its full year growth targets.

“Back-to-school, we think, is going to be big,” said Dick’s Sporting Goods CEO Lauren Hobart in May. “So we're leaning into it.”

Tiara Baines, a mother of three in Raleigh, North Carolina, told NBC News that she just finished back-to-school shopping last weekend for her seven-year old daughter, who will begin second grade in person this fall. She spent about $300 on clothes at The Children’s Place and a few local retailers along with $30 in school supplies at Walmart, which is more than what she spent last year when her daughter was in virtual schooling for first grade.

“I just wanted to make sure she had everything,” Baines said. “Last year, I didn't do a lot of clothes shopping but I did get more supplies and some she didn’t even use.”

Baines is hoping that schools stay open so that her daughter gets the support she needs as a student recently diagnosed with ADHD. But also partly because she spent hundreds of dollars on new clothes for school.

“Do I worry about the delta variant? Absolutely, but I always tell her to wear your mask, keep it on, keep it over your face,” she said. “Regardless of what happens, I’m going to have to spend money anyway.”