Woodward & Lothrop Inc.'s annual meeting on Thursday won't be a love-in, but getting through the session without encountering a stream of shareholder gripes should be a snap for Chairman Edwin K. Hoffman.

That was not the case a year ago when Hoffman was hit with a barrage of complaints about the company's earnings, expenses and cost-cutting measures.

The year 1981 had been marked by "extreme economic volatility and uncertainty throughout the Nation," Woodies reminded shareholders in the company's annual report, setting the stage for last year's meeting.

In a statement reminiscent of last year's comment on the economy, Hoffman notes in the 1982 annual report to shareholders that although the national economy "struggled during this period," earnings were higher.

Actually, earnings increased only 5.6 percent last year compared with a 6 percent gain in the previous year. And sales, though higher, rose only 6.8 percent in 1982 compared with 8.6 percent in the previous year.

Woodies, nonetheless, was not unique among retailers last year as the recession took its toll on consumer spending. In fact, retailers nationwide were happy to survive the first three quarters of last year with their shirts intact.

But Woodies' management goes into Thursday's meeting obviously bolstered by the company's report last week that first-quarter profits this year soared 271 percent.

At the same time, the run-up in Woodies' stock in the past four months is being widely interpreted as an indication of investor anticipation of substantial gains from developments resulting from current strategic plans. A key element in those plans, say members of the investment community, is Woodies' real estate holdings.

Woodies' agreement with a developer for the sale and exchange of company-owned property in the block just north of its downtown store, for example, could mean as much as $33 million to the Washington-based retail chain. In projecting the start of construction on the first phase of a mixed-use development next spring, however, Woodies may be overly optimistic.

In any event, shareholders have been told that progress is being made in the planning for the first phase of the development, which will include a hotel opposite Washington's new convention center.

Woodies is equally confident that it will begin development next spring on property that is adjacent to its Chevy Chase store. Although the Maryland National Capital Park & Planning Commission has approved plans for construction of an office and hotel complex on the site, residents in the area have tied up the project in legal knots.

Delays notwithstanding, development of the two properties "will have a positive impact on the future earnings and financial flexibility of the company," Hoffman says in a bullish projection with which some analysts have no quarrel.

One analyst who agrees with that assessment was on target six months ago when he correctly forecast Woodies' master growth plan. Ken Gassman of Wheat First Securities theorized that Woodies could use its extensive real estate holdings in the Washington area as a springboard for growth, perhaps in other areas of retailing. Gassman also appears to have hit the mark with his prediction that Woodies would drastically reduce the size of all new stores.

Indeed, Woodies' analysis has raised doubts about the viability of opening more full-line department stores, Hoffman indicates in this year's annual report.

"Our analysis indicates that the large capital expenditures required to construct these stores makes this strategy marginal due to the length of time it takes new stores to generate a rate of return required for the investment," he wrote in his report to stockholders of the company.

Hoffman added that significant opportunities exist for investing capital in remodeling existing stores to increase productivity and profitability "or for the development of smaller stores, with the concentration of selling efforts in higher-margin fashion merchandise."

What's more, he said, Woodies is well positioned to expand its business through acquisitions in closely related retail areas.

That's quite a menu of goodies for present shareholders and potential investors. Whether it's enough to discourage nagging concerns about earnings per share (30 cents in the first quarter this year compared with eight cents a year ago) inventory shortages and expense control remains to be seen.

On the latter two points, at least, Woodies claims substantial improvement. This year's annual report, in fact, is exhibit No. 1 in the company's cost-reduction claim. For the first time in recent memory, Woodies' annual report is strictly utilitarian.

The 1982 edition in plain green cover, is devoid of the usual slick, full-color photos of shopping mall or department store scenes. In fact, there are no photos at all in Woodies annual report this year.

At least Hoffman won't be asked to explain this year why it was necessary to print two pages of color photos showing customers selecting shirts at one of the company's stores.