Impulse buys are those trinkets, gizmos, and accessories retailers often stock by the register. They're the small, inexpensive, "Oh, can you ring this up, too" items intended to give your final purchase price an added boost. With the holiday shopping season kicking off later this month, I've got an impulse item for you -- the retailers themselves.

I won't bore you with the Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT), Gap (NYSE: GPS), and Federated Department Stores (NYSE: FD) names you probably know all too well by now. If you're looking for dividend-doling established retailers, maybe your next stop should be the Shop for Retailers column I wrote back in August. We're going to look at small boxes, here. That's because the real investing opportunities for substantial growth in the near-term lie in the smaller, obscure retailers. It's at that level that expansion can be brisk, and the company is nimble enough to respond quickly to the ever-changing shopping trends.

So, if you're not too busy, let's try to square away a parking space at your nearest mall and window-shop at these four budding retailers.

Hot Topic (Nasdaq: HOTT)
From skate punks to goths to headbangers, catering to the MTV Generation has made Hot Topic one of the fastest-growing retail chains. Providing music-licensed gear as well as all the retro goodies -- I mean, where else are you going to get a Walley World T-shirt -- the company has been living well off youths who want to make a statement (even if that statement is "No comment").

How well have things been going for Hot Topic? So well that the mallrat magnet has now grown to just over 400 stores, and it's been able to successfully launch its own line of Morbid-branded merchandise and launch a new chain of Torrid stores devoted to edgy plus-sized girls. The company is on track to earn $0.97 a share this year, and Wall Street is looking for profits to grow by 25% next year. Unlike most leveraged retailers, Hot Topic is cash-rich and debt-free.

Tuesday Morning (Nasdaq: TUES)
Quality closeouts may seem tempting when the economy is doing well, but it's practically a necessity when pennies are being pinched. So, it should come as little surprise that the Tuesday Morning chain of home furnishings and gift products has become required shopping for some. With third-quarter comps up by a huge 11%, a lot of folks are lining up for big savings.

While the refinancing boom has helped more mainstream home d�cor concepts such as Pier 1 Imports (NYSE: PIR), Tuesday Morning has been there to catch the thrifty, too. So far this year, sales are up by 16% to $449 million. However, most retailers log most of their profits and a good chunk of their revenue during the seasonally potent holiday quarter. Analysts expect the company to earn $0.74 a share this quarter to close out the year with $1.06 a share in profits.

Buckle (NYSE: BKE)
Yes, you can find turnaround plays even in the small-cap sector. Buckle was cutting itself a fine living selling clothes, shoes, and accessories to teenagers. Then it started to "buckle" as sales stumbled and earnings fell for a couple of years. This would have been the third year of the slide if the company hadn't been able to grow sales again. While earnings growth is expected to come in flat this year, Buckle sees the profit picture improving in 2003. With income estimates pegged at $1.66 a share next year, the stock is selling at just 11 times those targets.

A pre-teen multiple for a teen concept? The market's markdown is well-earned. Comps have been lower through the first nine months of the year. However, the year-to-date dip of 0.9% is a relative victory when you compare it to last year's 6.2% same-store tumble and a 6% decline in 2000. While three years of declines simply lowers the bar for the future, you might want to see how December's comps fare before you Buckle up.

99 Cents Only (NYSE: NDN)
Underselling dollar stores by a shiny copper penny, 99 Cents Only has been the shiny performer to buck the trend in a fragmented sector dotted with mom-and-pop shops.

While not cheap on an earnings multiple basis, the company has earned the market premium. It has been a consistent producer, growing both its top and bottom line every year since its 1996 initial public offering. Like Hot Topic, 99 Cents Only is another retail rarity in its cash-rich and debt-free balance sheet. The company's net margins of 8.2% comes up near the top of the heap in a sector that typically produces low net margins.

99 Cents Only's earnings per share are set to break the buck barrier next year, though with the stock in the mid-$20s, it may not appear to be the same kind of bargain one would find at one of its own stores. But paying 25 times forward earnings for a company that has consistently grown its bottom line by 20% to 25% is certainly reasonable.

So, that does it for now. In a few weeks, when the holiday sales spike over Thanksgiving weekend, retail stocks will be making headlines one way or another. Now is the time to take a closer look at the sector to find the promising participants, before the checkout line grows as the holidays loom closer.

Rick Aristotle Munarriz wasn't exactly born to shop until he drops, though he doesn't mind the time spent with his family at the mall. Rick's stock holdings can be viewed online, as can the Fool's disclosure policy.