We all know that Apple store employees have long been checking out customers in the aisles via iPods. And last month, the news broke that Alaska Airlines is swapping out its flight manuals for iPads.

While consumers might be all over the hottest gadgets, it’s still kind of surprising to me whenever I spot them in use at the businesses I frequent.

Maybe I’m just being quaint. After all, mobile tech is everywhere. In fact, in the first quarter of 2011, smartphones outsold PCs for the very first time.

These devices are clearly no longer relegated to our homes and pockets — they’re showing up almost everywhere we are. The latest example that caught my eye was Nordstrom, and how the department store uses iPhones as portable cash registers connected to its point-of-sale systems. The company said it would integrate 5,000 of them by July, and apparently, some have already been spotted in various locations. The handsets not only handles the front-end transaction duties, complete with e-receipt, but also allows clerks to do inventory searches and price checks on the fly.

iPads also seem to be inspiring some serious fascination. Last February, the Food and Drug Administration announced approval of Mobile MIM, the first diagnostic radiology mobile application. This will make it easier for doctors and nurses to keep the most timely data at their fingertips. I also hear that the quality of the imaging is spectacular — which is great because the last thing you want, as a patient, is to see your doctor scratching his head and guessing at some blurry films.

In restaurants, like this much-publicized one in Australia, iPads and tablet-like devices are being used increasingly as interactive menus.

There are plenty of other really interesting use-cases as well, including:

  • Ordering Food in Airports: Delta Airlines is involved in an initiative to integrate 200+ iPads at New York’s JFK and La Guardia Airports, so customers can use them to order meals and have them delivered to them within 10 minutes. Other ideas in the works are apps that let them check on flights, catch up on news, play games and more.
  • Corporate Intelligence: SAP AG, which already equipped execs with more than 3,000 iPads for corporate use, also plans to deploy the next-gen Apple tablet for its mobile vid-conferencing capabilities. The company’s looking into the BlackBerry PlayBook, due to its seamless integration of BlackBerry phones.
  • Concierge Duty: InterContinental Hotels & Resorts gave its concierges iPads, so they can dig up local resources faster and easier. The experiment was a big success, so much that the hotel even launched its own iPad app so consumers could benefit from the same kind of “insider-only” data.
  • Auto Dealerships: Mercedes-Benz is giving iPads to all of its 355 U.S. dealerships, so salespeople no longer have to corral customers into those pesky cubicles to seal the deal. Reps can complete papers for loans, leasing and other details right on the sales floor.
  • In-Flight Entertainment: Bluebox Avionics is launching an in-flight entertainment system that replaces seatback screens with iPads, so passengers (on Australian airline Jetstar) will be able to access music, vids, games, e-books, etc.

Before you go believing that this is all about Apple, there was another interesting nugget I found from SXSW this year — apparently, the agricultural community isn’t quite sipping the Cupertino kool-aid.

If you’re thinking farmers aren’t the tech-savviest group, well… you’d be wrong. They are actually quite sold on wireless tech — which should surprise no one, since they’re out in the field a lot. Not only are they connected, but their operations are also pretty plugged in, as groups go: It’s not unheard for them to be seen in a combine that’s driving itself.

Agriculture.com polled farmers and found that their go-to platforms are BlackBerry, Android, iPhone and Windows Mobile — in that order. The reasons may have to do with coverage area, as well as durability. (I don’t imagine a glass iPhone would do well falling off a tractor, do you?) And they are incredibly excited about the prospect of using increasingly powerful tablets on the farm.

And of course, there’s Best Buy, a leader supplier for many a tech habit across the country. The big box retailer is evaluating all the different tablets, to see which one they can best deploy successfully into its customer sales and service process.

But mobile isn’t just enticing big operations. Small ones are weighing their options too, as seen in the infographic that follows, courtesy of Intuit and the designers at Column Five (below).

Have you ever spotted businesses using consumer tech out in the wild? Any of them take you by surprise? And where else do you would love to see them being used? Tell us about your most brilliant (or wacky) ideas in the comments.