Nordstrom Inc., a leading West Coast retailer, confirmed yesterday that it is seriously studying the Washington area as a site for possible expansion on the East coast.

"Washington, D.C., is one of four markets we're looking at," said J. F. Nordstrom, president of the 84-year-old Seattle firm that began as a shoe store and has become one of the fastest growing and most successful clothiers on the West Coast, serving customers from Alaska to California in 44 stores.

"But we have no firm plans at this time," Nordstrom added, declining to elaborate on his company's plans or timetable until any decision is final.

Amid industry speculation that a major retailer is about to enter the highly competitive Washington market, the entrance of a new retailer such as Nordstrom's -- which is highly regarded for its service and deep inventories -- would inject even more fizz into the already heady retailing environment.

Bamberger's, a division of R. H. Macy & Co., has announced plans to open at least one store in Northern Virginia -- in the new Tysons II complex -- over the next three years. Two more sites are under study.

"Nordstrom's would sure bring some excitement, as would Bamberger's," said Alan Pennington, president of the retail-consulting firm Pennington Associates. "It is very aggressive in service, inventory and markdowns. . . . If I were in either Woodward & Lothrop's or The Hecht Co.'s shoes, I would be very nervous." Nordstrom's arrival would mean new competition not only for the two big local department stores, but also for such major fashion retailers as Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue and Raleighs.

Nordstrom's "is a very, very strong store," commented J. Warren Harris, chairman of The Hecht Co. "It's done very well in California with its recent expansion program," he noted. It's entrance into this area "would make it very exciting for everybody," including retailers as well as consumers, Harris added.

The Seattle chain, now run by the third generation of Nordstroms, was begun in 1901 as a shoe store. Before expanding in 1963 into a specialty fashion store, with clothes for men, women and children, it was the nation's largest independent shoe retailer.

Today, Nordstrom's calls itself the nation's largest fashion specialty store, selling $982 million of goods last year. Its profits were $40.7 million.

"They still run the company like a shoe store," said Woodies' Chairman Edwin K. Hoffman. "They are doing very well," he added.

Unlike most other retailers -- and like many shoe stores -- all salespeople are paid on a commission basis. Each has quotas, and each "is expected to meet or beat the quotas," said Pennington. As a result, he said, "you don't find any lackadaisical employes in Nordstrom's. All are fired up to help the consumer."

Also like a shoe store, Nordstrom's maintains unusually deep inventories, about double the size normally carried in a department store, Pennington said. However, with the commission system and an aggressive markdown policy for poor-selling goods, the merchandise is moved quickly, making productivity high.

Capitalizing on its reputation for service, Nordstrom's has managed to make great headway in California, another highly competitive retailing market. Financial analysts say the company now is considering trying to make similar inroads in the East.

There are several different locations here where Nordstrom's could set up shop. Tysons II, in Fairfax County, is looking for a third major retailer for its center, which will also house Bamberger's and Saks Fifth Avenue.

Although officials at Tysons II have said they have been talking to several retailers who do not now have stores in the area, they declined to say whether one of them was Nordstrom's.

Meanwhile, Pentagon City, in Arlington, is also looking for a major anchor. District of Columbia officials also are trying to woo new retailers to the newly revitalized downtown area.